The word “stress” appears approximately 72 times in the special report The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink. There is no denying its almost uniform existence in our modern lives – especially for those families living on the brink of poverty.
In an effort to find solutions for struggling families the report calls for, “…proposing a new social contract built around the reality of the new American family – a social compact based on care, compassion, and consciousness.” That commitment to consciousness should include a meaningful discussion about women and children using meditation and mindfulness practices as real and accessible tools to support their mental health.
We are a culture addicted to instant communication and immediate technologies. This has an effect on how we handle the human experience. Christopher Willard points to the existing trend of children using electronics in his book, Child’s Mind, “…kids spend more time on passive entertainment such as portable game systems, cellphones, and television rather than actively engaging the world.” He suggests that mindfulness offers an effective path for people of all ages and backgrounds to develop healthy response to a chaotic world around them and often inside of them.
So where do we start?
Most people know what “mindfulness” and “meditation” are thanks in part to the influence of those like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalia Lama, and even our peaceful yoga instructors. What we might not be as familiar with is how to integrate these practices into our busy lives, teach our children, and get our schools on board with providing appropriate practices for academic settings.
Here are some insightful definitions:
SILENCE: “A natural silence for people to tune into, to develop, to come towards, that is helpful for living and learning, developing and understanding, interacting and knowing. Silence brings peace, healing, joy, simplicity, and truth. It brings about the laying of foundations of understanding.” Dr. Helen E. Lees, Silence in Our Schools.
MINDFULNESS: “I define mindfulness as the practice of being fully present and alive, body and mind united. Mindfulness is the energy that helps us to know what is going on in the present moment. Mindfulness brings concentration and this skill of concentrating grows that as we continue the practice, we gain insight into our lives.” Thich Nhat Hanh.
MEDITATION: “To engage in mental exercise (as concentration on one’s breathing or repetition of a mantra) for the purpose of reaching a heightened level of spiritual awareness.” (Merriam Webster Dictionary); “Meditation is needed in developing mental qualities. The mind is definitely something that can be transformed, and meditation is a means to transform it.” (His Holiness the Dalia Lama.)
VARIOUS FORMS of MEDITATION: mindfulness meditation, guided meditation, Transcendental Medication (TM), Christian meditation, Kabbalah meditation, mantra, zazen, deep breathing, walking meditation, Taoist, visualization, biofeedback, focus, and prayer. Yoga and Tai Chi can also be considered forms of meditation.
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MEDITATION and MINDFULNESS: According to Buddhist teaching, mindfulness is “noticing” any number of objects, whereas meditation is the focus on a single object, possibly the breath.
With growing support, research, and media coverage, mindfulness and meditation seem to be moving towards a more mainstream existence. The pendulum is swinging in reaction to what journalist Carl Honore dubbed, our “cult of speed.” Our numerous roles, overload of responsibilities, and “always-on” technology keep us ramped up, multi-tasking, and consequently worn out.
Our children are not better off. They ingest the second-hand stress their parents project, and are burdened with full schedules of their own.
According to the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, “Chronically stressed children are at risk of long-term cognitive damage, because their brains are not yet fully developed. Stress can also lead to health problems later in life including alcoholism, depression, eating disorders, heart disease, and other chronic diseases. Stress reduction is essential in the development of children through all stages.”
The inclusion of meditation and mindfulness in their daily lives, verifies the importance of monitoring and caring for mental health as naturally as they do their physical selves. It also teaches youth the importance of setting aside time to disconnect with social media and other forms of electronic entertainment.
For parents and children, the first step can be placing value on finding silence in the busy home, regardless of which practice is used. Silence is such a simple thing, yet often overlooked.
In her book, Silence in Our Schools, Dr. Helen E. Lees, declares, “Silence is the new oil. From a global perspective, both are sourced and mined with efforts from the depths. Both involve a power of transformation that can change the world. Both are complicated in their manifesto. Both are valuable.”
When I first heard someone speak of silence as a practice, it seemed so obvious, yet also, innovative. Years ago, I attended a literary luncheon on Cape Cod where writer Anne D. LeClaire was discussing her new book, Listening Below the Noise. She shared her experience of practicing complete silence for an entire day, each month – for more than twenty years.
I was entranced. I had two young children and was desperate to find some quiet in my day. From that point on, I always made sure that silence was something we had in our home.
Five years and two more children later, I am still working on it. It has been a practice of trial, error, and flexibility – but my children get it. They have learned the value of good silence, the effectiveness of meditation, and the importance of connecting to their inner selves. Now that they are a bit older and navigating this complicated world, I can see how important these practices are for their overall well-being.
Our society continues to evolve and the pace is hurried. Where stress is so palpable for most adults, meditation techniques no longer belong on the periphery. In this country, where rates of childhood anxiety and depression continue to increase, tools for prevention need to accessible. At home, and in school settings, discussions regarding mental health should become as commonplace as nutrition and fitness.
During the coming months, I will report on schools that are implementing these practices, health organizations that use meditation and mindfulness in treating their patients, and specific practices and resources for families.
Sign up to receive ShriverReport.org newsletters directly to your inbox!