Mindfulness is an experiential practice that helps children, teens and adults to become aware of awareness itself. Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche writes in his article The Good Shepherd, “Awareness is the natural, innate, knowing quality of mind that is with us all the time. We can’t function without awareness; we would not have any experience of anything without awareness. However, we do not always recognize it”. Take the breath as an example of daily awareness. We breathe all day long without hardly ever noticing. Unless we are being physically active or if our body is under stress we rarely recognize the breath. Mindfulness is the practice of bringing our awareness to the present moment intentionally and without judgment. We pay attention to our thoughts, emotions, feelings and body sensations without a sense of right or wrong, and are engaged in the natural, present moment.
When I teach mindfulness to young students often many of them are unfamiliar with the term mindfulness so I begin with cultivating an understanding of the practice by giving students the definition as told by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn: “Mindfulness is to pay attention: on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally”. When students hear the word nonjudgmentally they are instantly intrigued, because for many of them, negative self-talk, fear and criticism are what they relate to in their own minds on a daily basis, rather than acceptance and compassion for oneself. When students hear that they can rest within their own awareness peacefully and nonjudgmentally, there seems to be an immediate relief of expectation. Many of the students are surprised by the lack of awareness they experience when first trying mindfulness. Since many of these students are under constant academic and social demands, bringing a sense of relaxed attention to their lives allows them to take a break from the outside world while intentionally being present. This quiet awareness is a rare opportunity for students to skillfully develop self- reflection and acceptance while cultivating an ease and peace of mind.
When asked, “What’s in the mind?” Many students respond: thoughts, feelings, emotions, habits, beliefs and attitudes. I discuss with them how the mind has the capacity for reasoning, observation and deduction, and inquire about the nature of thoughts as positive, neutral and negative; past, present and future. Many students share with me that they have never before looked at the nature of their own thoughts and emotions and that when given this newfound understanding of awareness are better able to understand what kinds of thoughts they are having at any given time.
With the experiential practice of mindful breathing, that is, simply sitting with awareness of the breath, breathing in and out, naturally and relaxed, most students are able to witness their thoughts in a new light for the very first time. The nonjudgmental awareness that mindfulness teaches can lead to increased self-regulation and sustained attention, greater ability to communicate with others, lowered levels of anxiety, reduced depression, and the ability to calm and soothe oneself. The mindfulness practice cultivates an awareness of inner confidence, kindness, compassion, empathy, joy, fairness, generosity, forgiveness and gratitude which, when realized can extend compassion far beyond the individual.
Mindfulness matters. By nurturing our natural capacity for awareness we begin to wake ourselves up to the beauty of the world that surrounds us. By teaching and cultivating the practice of mindfulness in young people, we equip them with the skills to navigate and appreciate their lives more fully as they engage with this world.
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