Our emotions give life colour. They guide us, inspire us, and bring meaning. When they are in balance, they give rise to wisdom and vitality. However, when they are out of balance, they can also overwhelm us, cloud our perception, and run the show. They have the power to enliven us or bully us. How many of us were ever taught about how to manage our emotions as children at school? We were taught math, languages, biology, history, geography - but were we taught how to navigate the landscape of our inner world?
Take a moment to imagine what it would have been like if you had been given explicit training in how to regulate your emotions when they became overwhelming, rather than suppressing or getting lost in them, in high school. Richard Davidson, who has been studying the brain for 30 years has said, “well-being is fundamentally no different than learning to play the cello.” What harmful scenarios, hurtful actions and suffering might you have been able to avoid? Adolescence is known as a time of emotional turmoil for many, a time when people do things they regret. Important life lessons can be gleaned from these experiences, but perhaps some of these lessons did not have to be so hard earned.
The good news is that it’s never too late to learn. And more good news: youth are finally being taught this skill through mindfulness instruction in school today.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness has become a buzz word, but what is it exactly? Jon Kabat-Zinn, the originator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, defines mindfulness as “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.” It is coming out of automatic pilot mode and experiencing the present moment fully through the senses. A common metaphor is that our usual state of mind is like fog and mindfulness is like a street lamp, illuminating the way to clarity.
The MBSR program was first delivered in chronic pain clinics in hospitals in 1979. Today, approximately 300 of the top hospitals and clinics around the world have adopted the MBSR program and one third of family doctors in the UK prescribe mindfulness to their patients. Recent years have seen mindfulness instruction spread to government organizations like the House of Commons, sports teams, military, large corporations, prisons, psychotherapy clinics, and schools.
Some examples of formal practice include: feeling the sensations of breathing in the body and bringing the attention back any time it wanders, just feeling the sensations in the feet in a walking meditation, or scanning the awareness down the body. Informal practice can be brought to any everyday activity like eating an apple mindfully, washing the dishes while feeling the hot water on our hands and the smells of the soaps, or listening to music fully in the moment and bringing the attention back any time it wanders. Mindfulness emphasizes casting our awareness in a way that is kind and accepting of what we experience. By stepping back and observing our internal experience, we find a capacity to respond rather than react.
Mindfulness Can Change Brain Structure
We used to think that we were born with a certain number of neurons and the connections between them were fixed for life and dwindled in number over our lifetime. However, with the discovery of neuroplasticity towards the end of the 20th century, we now understand that our brains are plastic, which means we can continue to form connections between neurons and grow new neurons throughout our lifespans. This means it’s never too late to learn.
Three decades of research has shown that the MBSR program leads to lessened stress and anxiety, heightened immune function, better relationships, prevention of depressive relapses, and enhanced well-being. More recent research into the neuroscience of mindfulness has made some fascinating discoveries as to what mindfulness is doing to the brain. Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School studied people who underwent the MBSR 8-week program and found that certain structures of the brain thickened, even in people who had never meditated before. The areas that thickened are involved in attention, perspective taking, empathy and compassion. There was a decrease in the size of the amygdala, which detects possible threats, resulting in anxiety, fear and stress.
This encouraging research suggests we can train the mind to change the brain.
The right hemisphere of the brain tends to be associated with creativity, lateral thinking, and emotionality and the left hemisphere with logic, linear thinking, and problem-solving. Most people have either a right hemisphere dominance or a left hemisphere dominance. People with right hemisphere dominance can feel flooded by their emotions while people with left hemisphere dominance can be cut-off from them their emotions and resulting vitality. Mindfulness training can bring greater integration between the left and right hemispheres, as well as integration to the upper and lower parts of the brain, enhancing emotion regulation. Dr. Daniel Siegel, a psychiatrist who has devoted much of his career to researching how mindfulness impacts the brain, recommends different methods depending on hemisphere dominance.
In my workshops I teach the different practices tailored to whether people have right or left hemisphere dominance. This way individuals can feel empowered to select and practice meditations that will bring greater integration in their brain, and thus greater wisdom. Many models of wisdom in Eastern contemplative thought posit that it is in drawing on rational mind and emotional mind that we can arrive at wisdom. I also teach practices to increase self-compassion as this is an area that research has also shown greatly impacts stress levels and well-being.
Mindfulness for Youth
Over the past 10 years, the MindUP and Mindful Schools programs, which train teachers to incorporate mindfulness into their daily lessons, have reached 750,000 students worldwide. These programs have been adopted by several Vancouver elementary schools. In addition, the Vancouver Children’s Hospital has developed the Mindful Awareness and Resilience Skills for Adolescents (MARS-A) program for youth experiencing anxiety, depression, and chronic health conditions.
In 2013, studies were published that found that youth who underwent mindfulness programs were kinder to other students, had reduced levels of stress, depression, symptoms of ADHD, and improved attention and levels of well-being.
Some of the best youth mindfulness research and innovation is happening in Vancouver, but little of it has made its way to the Island yet. Does your child’s school include mindfulness in its curriculum?
Mindfulness for You
I teach a weekly drop-in mindfulness meditation class in Maple Bay on Tuesday evenings from 7pm-8pm (by donation, open to anyone over 16 years old). In a recent class, a lovely 80-year-old woman told me that although she didn’t take a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course until several years ago, it’s been extremely valuable to her. No matter your age, it’s never too late to learn.
Beginning January 25th, I will be teaching an in-depth 6-week mindfulness workshop at the Matraea Centre in downtown Duncan. The workshop will focus on using mindfulness to find balance, wisdom, and self-compassion in the face of our emotions. In addition, I am collecting interest to teach the MARS-A adolescent mindfulness program developed at Vancouver Children’s Hospital that will begin in the Spring. It is an evidence-based program with excellentfindings. This is the first adolescent mindfulness group of this nature that will be taught on Vancouver Island.