Secular mindful awareness was brought into the mainstream primarily through Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) – a clinical program developed thirty years ago for adults by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn when he was working as a scientist at the University of Massachusetts. MBSR helps adults develop the capacity to hold off from reacting to (or even analyzing) a stressful situation in order to see it clearly and respond skillfully – in a more thoughtful, calm and reasoned way.
While MBSR was born in a hospital setting, it has now taken root in non-clinical settings quite literally around the world. As more and more adults were exposed to mindfulness, either through classical Buddhist training or secular programs like MBSR, practitioners began to wonder whether the mindfulness practices that helped them could also help their children. Many of those practitioners were professionals who worked with children (clinicians, educators, therapists, and researchers, for example) and their direct experience with mindfulness, enhanced by their professional expertise, helped develop a broad view of how mindfulness with children could look – one that joins a more reflective and introspective way of being gleaned from introspective practice, with insights from modern psychology, neuroscience, and education.
The aim of a mindful education is to learn academic, social and emotional skills in a balanced way. This approach is both very old (gleaned from classical Buddhist practices) and very new (informed by best practices in psychology and education). Classical mindfulness practice focuses on the development of three areas: attention, wisdom and values. Adapted for secular use these three areas provide a roadmap for a new set of ABCs — one that goes beyond the traditional ABCs of reading, writing and arithmetic to include the development of Attention, Balance, and Compassion, too.
Many educational approaches teach productive and healthy ways of being, but lack an important element of mindfulness training: the capacity to be alert and open to life-experience as it occurs in a non-reactive, resilient, and compassionate way. With mindfulness practice, kids learn to give themselves the breathing room they need to take in what’s happening in their inner and outer worlds and see it clearly. They develop the restraint necessary to hold-off before speaking or acting in order to choose how to respond wisely, in a way that is skillful, kind, and compassionate to those involved.
Our kids are inheriting a complex and ever-changing world, faced with problems we have not yet been able to solve. To find solutions, they’ll need a refined capacity to see their life-experience clearheadedly; the inner strength to tolerate any emotional, intellectual, and physical discomfort that arises in response to what they see; and the restraint necessary to inhibit their reaction to what they see until they can formulate a skillful response. These transformative qualities are ones that the practice of mindfulness values and develops. Armed with these qualities our kids will be ready to change our world for the better.