“The roughest roads are not found across rivers and mountains, but in people’s hearts.”     

When facilitating mindfulness meditation I usually go through the energy points of the chakras, including colours corresponding with the breath, in addition to several minutes of guided visualisation with the intention of creating a tranquil inner space.  Breath in the ancient Indian teachings is known as Pranayama used in yoga practice, in which Mohan clarifies is ‘to lengthen, stretch and extend.’  He states that pra means “very well,” and an, “to go” or “to travel.” In addition, he describes prana (or chi) as the principle of Life Force; the current that pulses throughout the body until the last breath, preceding death.  The flow of prana within the body is thereby affected by impurities or nutrients in the food and drink consumed, physical or lack of physical activity, and constructive or negative thought patterns (Mohan, 1993: 159).  Mohan writes:


‘… breath is the expression of prana, the expression of life and the force behind it.  While prana cannot be seen, touched, or directly manipulated, the breath is a sort of lever, or method, for working on it indirectly.  So when the breath is affected, prana is also affected, because the two are directly related.’ 

(Mohan, 1993: 160)


Professional ethics and skill in facilitating mindfulness meditation in secondary school

I have adapted the essential ethics for facilitators of mindfulness from Jan Chaithavuthi and Kanchanoo Muangsiri’s Ancient Thai Massage (2012: 84-86) as guidelines for the ethical requirements.  These guidelines are based on the notion of safety, integrity and the relevant competencies essential for good practice. These ideals include:


  • Daily practice and experience in meditation (including gratitude prayers) and yoga exercise with breath
  • A refrain from smoking and a limitation or abstaining from alcohol
  • Quality of nutrients in food  - inner cleanliness
  • Personal hygiene - outer cleanliness
  • Respectfulness at all times to the receivers of mindfulness, including pitch, tone, and facial expression and general body language and thought
  • Correction of young students' attitudes and/or conflicting behaviour in a firm yet non-persecutory manner
  • Correction of posture for meditation and yoga either verbally or physically in a professional and non-intrusive way.


When a person is sitting or lying in a receptive mode it is important that they feel safe. The environment needs to be relaxed.  For example, it would contradict everything that mindfulness aspires towards for a facilitator to rebuke a pupil for fidgeting.  This type of impurity on the part of such a facilitator or interfering observer would be considered unethical practice.  An experienced mindfulness practitioner embracing its wholistic core knows the value of appropriate communication skills, embodying the qualities of compassion from the heart through his or her own practice in alignment with its principles.  The difference is palpable between facilitators who adhere to these ethical guidelines and those who don’t.


The wider picture

A saner society requires the embodiment of sane role models; the most influential being parental influences, domestic environment, relational bonds, teachers and other educational authorities, governments and all situations in which an infant, child and adolescent is directly or indirectly affected.  Minors are in the developmental stages of their lives in which the brain has not yet fully formed.  And it is the adults’ responsibility, not the child or adolescent, to foster the social qualities and emotional stability through healthy role modelling.  The behaviour of adults is a powerful mirror projecting into a young person’s psyche how they experience themselves through this mirroring.  I believe that the ways in which we impact young people will reflect our future societies.


References:

Chaithavuthi, J and Muangsiri, K (2012), Third Edition, Ancient Thai Massage: Healing with Life Force, Chiang Mai, Thailand, Thai Massage Book Press

Kuen Shan, K (2002), The Cat and The Tao, London, William Heinemann (secondary reference quotation from Juyi, Bai).

Mohan, A G (1993), Yoga for Body, Breath and Mind: A Guide to Personal Reintegration, Boston, Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Nhat Hanh, T (1998), Teachings on Love, Berkeley, California, Parallax Press division of Unified Buddhist Church.

Rogers, C R (2003), Client-Centered Therapy, London, Constable & Robinson Ltd.

Van der Kolk, B (2014) The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma, London, Allen Lane-Penguin Books Ltd.

Illustrations by Deborah Shaer, 2016

Mindfulness, breath and meditation

Authentic mindfulness meditation is intrinsically connected with yoga practice, with the principles of wholistic wellbeing evoking activation of breath and stillness.  Drawing from A. G. Mohan’s yoga teachings with a focus on ‘passively observing’ the breath, Mohan emphasises the nature of ‘passive conscious breathing’ linked with developing a capacity to focus the mind with ease (Mohan, 1993: 162).  In the ancient Indian Vedic teachings the universe is composed of five elements consisting of space, air, fire, water and earth and, as Mohan explains, ‘each element contains the other, and all of them are interrelated.’ In this respect the chakra system originating in the ancient Indian literature in the Vedas, sets out the sequence and corresponding element associated with each chakra.  According to Mohan, chakra ‘literally means wheel, a symbol of motion’, and he suggests that each of the chakras are impacted by our emotional and mental states (Mohan, 1993: 189).

Click to Enlarge

Fig. 2   The seven chakras and five elements

Author: Deborah Shaer, 20 January 2016

Copyright 2016 Deborah Shaer.  All Rights Reserved 

Fig. 1   Regions in the social brain impacted

by stress and trauma 

Neuroscience is a vast and complex subject, yet a significant educational tool involving all manner of emotional and mental issues along a wide spectrum.  When we begin to explore the profound importance of our responsibility as adults in how we think, behave and contribute to our environment, such as in a toxic or compassionate way, the application of mindfulness affecting positive changes in ourselves may be one of many motivating factors for practicing it.  

Bai Juyi  - Ancient Chinese poet

Deborah Shaer​: artist & Arts Therapist 


Art  Child-Adolescent Psychotherapy  Education

THE ART OF MINDFULNESS, HEART AND COMPASSION FOR A SANER SOCIETY BEGINNING WITH SCHOOLS    


  
                                                   
                                                       

Adolescent mood swings​

A troubled adolescent in the throes of rapid change, sometimes coming out in spots, sprouting taller almost overnight and acutely self-conscious about their appearance is also the so-called norm if you happen to be aged between 12 and 19 or thereabouts.  The emotional turbulance in eratic moods swings ranging from exuberance to a glaring silent rage, at times may look as if there are two opposing personalities present or more in one young person.

Adolescents in the school environment

Adolescents need containment, healthy boundaries and an anchor to ground and calm their angst, wavering on a seemingly perpetual brink of eruption.  So school, which could potentially accommodate these needs and perhaps does provide some containment, however, is more likely to be experienced as imprisonment, unfair punishment, persecution and intolerable boredom. Behavioural problems in the classroom would seem to reflect for some young people, the incapacity to tolerate uncomfortable feelings, which for an adolescent is generally magnified, triggering anxiety and in extreme cases, panic attacks.  Logically it doesn’t make sense for a pupil to continue acting out, knowing that the inevitable penalty prescribed is detention.  Logic, however, is not a common adolescent trait.  More likely, rational thinking may be swallowed up by emotional tirades projected onto the teacher or peers when triggers occur.  An adolescent is acutely aware that obedience, compliance and obligation to produce assigned work are the requisites of a typical secondary school setting; but discipline for most, is not high up on their list of priorities.

The build up of constraints for young people who feel stifled by rules that strip them of the power to freely express their personal thoughts and feelings can easily evoke the fuel for highly emotive and defiant behaviour, especially in pupils with emotional problems.  Adolescents are by nature rebellious, and this can also be healthy, but how they do it and to what extent requires discernment as to where they are in a continuum from ‘normal’ to pathological. We don’t have a social compass that pinpoints exactly what normal is, but we can at least gage the sphere of normality compared with out-of-control or bizarre behaviour.  In the arts psychotherapeutic space young people are given the freedom to express what they truly feel verbally and through the use of the arts, with an option to engage in mindfulness meditation.  

Love as an agent for healing

Many young people starved of love inevitably suffer from emotional deficits such as disturbing character traits, violent and/or suicidal ideation and other instabilities.  As professionals we cannot change their past but we can help by supporting them.  When I hear an adolescent talk about a teacher they love and respect, the greatest gift of that teacher is their consistency of wisdom and compassion, which becomes internalised in the young person.  This is one of the core principles of an integrative therapeutic relationship.  In this case something special has occurred to be savoured and cherished.  For a young person who is neglected and abused at home the experience of being valued is rare or non-existent.  So, when teachers are unaware of the cause of their pupils’ acting out behaviour, rather than reacting automatically, assessing the emotional temperature and addressing what is happening in a curious way may be more conducive to containing their fire. This approach also aligns with Carl Rogers’ advocacy of a humanistic student-centred focus.  Rogers’ interest in a person’s character by asking probing questions, as he sees it, determines an educator’s, or therapist’s capacity to engage in a humanist approach.  He asks us to ask ourselves:


‘Do we see each… [child-adolescent] as having dignity in his [or her] own right?  If we do hold this point of view at a verbal level, to what extent is it operationally evident at the behavioral level?  Do we tend to treat [pupils] as persons of worth, or…. do we devaluate them by our attitudes and behaviour?  Is our philosophy one in which respect for the [young] individual is uppermost? ….To what extent do we have a need and a desire to dominate others?  Are we willing for the individual to select and choose his [or her] own values…..? (Rogers, 1951, 2003: 20)

​The capacity to truly see and sense a disturbance in a pupil is the first step in awareness, and attending to the suffering of that pupil, the second.  I use the word suffering because acting out behaviour is a form of communication that tends to arise as a consequence of troubling issues.  So, being fully present and curious, as opposed to shouting and handing out punishments, can potentially allow for more stimulating, compassionate and effective communication.

From an Eastern wholistic perspective, Tibetan teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s philosophy is encapsulated in this passage: 

‘Mindfulness is the energy that allows us to look deeply at our body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness and see clearly what our real needs are, so we will not drown in the sea of suffering.  Eventually love fills our mind and our will, and all our actions from that time on manifest love.  Speech and actions are the fruits of will, so when our will is permeated by love, our speech and actions are also suffused with love.  We speak only loving and constructive words and act only in ways that bring happiness and relieve suffering’

(Nhat Hanh, 1998: 32).


The word love in the context of school may sound oddly out of place, yet love is a crucial core of humanity, manifesting in infinite ways in the absence of unyielding coldness.  The problematic and complex issues of an adult with unhealed childhood wounds, such as a teacher’s, is likely to incur unconscious reactions that may be blown out of proportion to a pupil’s perceived disobedience.  For instance, a pupil may drop a pencil and be given a concern or detention.  I believe that it is vitally important for adults working with young people to clean up their own emotionally wounded material, such as through professional help, in order to embody healthy role modelling through self-care and compassion.  The unconscious dynamics are very much alive in classrooms, and toxic communication amongst some pupils would seem to attest to their less than nurturing home lives.

Mindfulness, breath and neuroscience

Authentic mindfulness meditation, yoga, martial arts (including Japanese dance performance such as Bhuto) and the healing arts are steeped in a rich array of Eastern cultures.  When we are feeling stressed out, our breathing becomes shallow and the body tenses up, constricting the flow of breath and blood circulation.  According to neuroscientist, Bessel van der Kolk, ‘breathing, movement and touch in mindfulness meditation, and yoga… recalibrate the autonomic nervous system (ANS).’  He also describes the functions of the sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic (PNS) paths in the autonomic nervous system.  For example, the SNS influences reactions to danger by propelling adrenaline through the adrenal glands inducing swift and rapid motion, whilst the PNS lowers arousal levels, heart rate, breathing and acute tension, restoring balance (Van der Kolk, 2014: 62-63). 


Van der Kolk suggests that a person whose social brain has been impeded by trauma, causing deficiencies in the brain’s frontal lobes, destabilises emotions, especially to perceived threat. We can see a high proportion of the SNS reaction in the classroom, or playground when interactions between pupils that begin with playfulness, turn into aggression. Van der Kolk further points out that the medial prefrontal cortex, and the amygdala, the latter also referred to as fight or flight, are altered when trauma or PTSD is present (Van der Kolk, 2014).  PTSD in psychiatric terms is considered to be a condition caused by a single traumatic event.  If trauma and PTSD are not treated, young people are at risk of being re-traumatised, compounded by retardation or other deficits in their emotional and mental development. This suggests that many of the emotive reactions in adolescents, underlying conditions involving traumatic experience may be a possible cause.