Mindfulness and Meditation: Is this the best way to help our students?
There’s much talk about mindfulness, and attempts to introduce it into schools. By definition, mindfulness is awareness and acceptance. Most thoughts and feelings people generate are so automatic from
rehearsal and practice that they are often unaware of them. Ask kids "What were you thinking when you did that?" and you usually get a sincere "I don't know". They also often don’t see how their thoughts and feelings are connected to behaviors that makes
their lives worse. So many thoughts, feelings and behaviors are so automatic that kids are usually unaware of the multitude of choices they have and make constantly that cause them to end up where they do cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally. Therefore,
any increased awareness would surely be helpful.
Young people are unfortunately too often taught and encouraged to "should" on themselves, even beat up on themselves for thoughts and feelings they have, and actions they engage in. They too often are told and believe they don't live up to others expectations in some way. This is the recipe for shame and guilt. Shame and guilt cause them to keep what they think, feel and do a secret, and to be less likely to seek or accept help that is available to them. This can play out in some very untoward, even tragic ways. Dr. Albert Ellis always said "shame blocks change". So acceptance would surely be helpful. Dr. Ellis always talked about the importance of teaching and encouraging people to have Unconditional Self-Acceptance or USA, and having Unconditional Other Acceptance or UOA.
Meditation seems to be an integral and big part of what most schools dabbling in mindfulness are trying to teach kids to do. I see pictures of teachers having kids sit on classroom floors to meditate. Goldie Hawn is advocating for meditation becoming a regular part of school days. There has been plenty of evidence throughout history of the value of meditation, so I don’t doubt for a second that it could have a positive effect on kids, giving them a sense of power and control over their thoughts and feelings. However, I could also see it as ending being one of those school activities where “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” so to speak. By that I mean that those students who could benefit most from meditation may be the hardest ones for a teacher to get to engage in it – and those who need it the least would be the easiest ones to.
There have also been millions of people throughout human history who have made meditation a regular, daily part of their lives. In many ways, daily prayers that are common in some religions are really meditation. However, I heard a researcher in meditation say on PBS that only 5% of the people who are trained in meditation continue the practice. So will most kids in our society adopt meditation as a life-long practice? It might be helpful if they did, but I suspect they won’t. Our culture and lifestyles don’t lend themselves well to making time for meditation. They certainly create a need for something to help people get a handle on their thoughts and feelings, but don’t lend well to making the time to meditate.
GETTING BETTER VS. FEELING BETTER
There’s another aspect to this that I believe is important to consider. Albert Ellis always made a distinction between temporarily feeling better and getting better. There are a lot of ways to temporarily feel better. Many are healthy for us, like meditation, exercise, yoga; others are not, like smoking, drinking, using drugs, overeating. They all work in one of three basic ways. One, they give us a temporary time out, break, or vacation from the events of our lives and the thoughts that go with them that cause us to feel the way we do. Those events can be real-time, imagined or remembered. However, sometimes the thoughts and feelings people have are so strong that they can’t be shut off with just a little of something. This is why people over indulge in things like alcohol or drugs. Overindulging is the only way to shut their thoughts and feelings off. Two, they help deplete the energy to move (e-motion) that has built up from having such thoughts about such events. Exercise is one of the best at this. Three, they give us a temporary sense of pleasure. Eating does this, especially when indulging in processed foods designed to stimulate the basic taste buds we all have.
LIKE OTC MEDICATIONS
However, once we stop engaging in such activities, our events are usually waiting for us, if only in our minds, and our thoughts about them return. This causes the feelingS to build back up. In this way, such activities act like OTC drugs for symptoms of a cold. As long as OTC medications are in our blood and tissues, we get symptom relief. But when their levels drop, the symptoms return, because they’ve done nothing about the cause of the symptoms, a virus. Likewise, most activities people engage in to temporarily feel better do nothing about the cause of our feelings, the thoughts we have about the real, imagined or remembered events of our lives. They also do little is anything to change the events.
GETTING BETTER DEFINED
Ellis said getting better means permanently reducing the frequency, intensity and duration of troublesome emotions. The only way to really do that is change the way we think.
COGNITIVE, EMOTIONAL, BEHAVIORAL "RUTS"
When people practice and rehearse thinking, feeling, saying and doing things certain ways, they create cognitive, emotional and behavioral “ruts” in their brains. “Ruts” make thinking, feeling, saying and doing things certain ways automatic. People typically lose sight of the fact that they always have choices as to how to think about or look at things, how they want to feel, and what they want to say and do. Once we create “ruts”, we can’t get rid of them. That’s true for cognitive, emotional and behavioral “ruts”. We can only create new ones that will hopefully compete for use with the old ones. Even after creating new “ruts”, we can always slip into our old ones, and most people do.
Many people of all ages have deep “ruts” for thinking in ways that make their lives worse instead of better. They have a host of what Ellis called automatic irrational beliefs. Dr. David Amen calls them Automatic Negative Thoughts, and says people often have ANT problems.
MEDITATION IS LIKE AN OFFENSIVE GAME PLAN
To me, teaching meditation to students is like giving a football team an offensive game plan. It’s basically saying “Here’s what you should do, and make time for doing in your life to win”. It’s often said in sports, “The best defense is a good offense”. Perhaps there’s truth to that with meditation. But don’t we need to also give people the equivalent of a defensive game plan against their existing “rutted”, automatic irrational beliefs, or automatic negatives thoughts (ANTs)? In a football game, if a team lacked a defensive game plan, the opposing team’s offense would probably “run wild” and run up the score. An analogous thing happens to people with their ANTs. They dominate their thinking and people have no defense against them. So their ANTs "run wild" in their minds. It’s also said in sports that “The name of the game is defense”.
THE MISSING DEFENSIVE GAME PLAN
What I’ve always liked about Ellis’ work is that it gives people of any age a much needed, and usually missing defensive game plan against their ANTs.
First, it teaches people to do the equivalent of “scouting the opposition”, just like football coaches do before upcoming games. Students (of any age) are taught to recognize four basic types of irrational thinking in themselves, and others. This is step B in Ellis’ five step approach (A-B-C-D-E).
Then students are given a defensive game plan against their automatic irrational beliefs, or ANTs. This is step D for Disputing. Disputing means questioning and challenging the way we think. The beauty of disputing as Ellis conceived it is that students are basically taught to apply the scientific method all kids are taught in science classes to their everyday theories and hypotheses about the way they, others, and life is or should be. It's really a simple matter to teach them to adapt what they've already learned in science class to their everyday theories and hypotheses - to make them scientists in their own lives.
Step E is identifying what Ellis called Effective Coping Statements that someone could think instead in response to their real, imagined or remembered life events that would cause them to generate a more functional, and even helpful amount of e-motion (energy to move). I like to say that the combination of steps D and E represent a DE-fensive game plan against peoples ANTs. This process is called cognitive restructuring, and is the ticket to GETTING better instead of just temporarily feeling better.
With practice and rehearsal, this disputation (questioning, challenging) of automatic irrational beliefs or negative thoughts becomes automatic itself, like grammar check on a computer. It’s not something someone has to make time for in their daily life. It just becomes the way they process everything that that passes throught their minds when things happen.
With practice, the Effective Coping Statements become “rutted” in their brains, and become Automatic Positive Thoughts (APT). They become increasingly more APT to think these new, and more helpful ways than their old ways.
ARE MINDFULNESS AND MEDITATION THE LATEST FAD?
Schools have a habit of adopting all kinds of new ideas, most of which turn out to be passing “fads” in many ways. However, is simply making kids more aware (or mindful) of their thoughts and feelings enough? Is it enough to give them labels for their feelings? Acceptance will certainly be helpful to combat shame and guilt which so often complicate any “problems” students have.
Meditation is certainly no fad. It’s been around for a long time and helped millions of people throughout human history. However, is meditation the only, or even the best “tool” we can and should give students to help them gain control over their thoughts, feelings and actions?
Whatever we try to teach them to do will always have to compete with so many others things we also want to do with them for their time and energy. That will be true later in their lives as well. That’s probably why only 5% of those taught meditation stick with it.
We always talk about teaching kids “critical thinking” skills. That’s what Ellis’ approach really does. I call my particular adaptation of Ellis’ work The Mental and Emotional Tool Kit for Life. I invite you to read about the ten “tools” I think we can and should give to students.
However, first we need to give these “tools” to all our new and current teachers for their sake, and the sake of their students. You can read about how they can help teachers at: