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Mind matters now and Zen - even in Irish classrooms

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Senior infants class at St Ultan's in Cherry Orchard during their mindfulness session

Senior infants class at St Ultan's in Cherry Orchard during their mindfulness session

Senior infants class at St Ultan's in Cherry Orchard during their mindfulness session

Mindfulness, the self-help boom of the decade, will now be taught in schools, writes Kim Bielenberg.

It has moved from the world of Eastern new age mysticism right into the heart of the modern Irish classroom. It has been adopted by Catholic nuns and secular psychologists, and used by Google to improve staff performance.

Mindfulness - the psychological technique that is supposed to help us to live in the moment and take time out from stress or negative emotions - has entered the mainstream. This month The Little Book of Mindfulness by Tiddy Rowan hit the top of the Irish bestseller chart.

There are countless apps for it, and it is used in the US army. The ultimate sign that it has become more than a self-help fad came with confirmation that it will be studied as part of the new Junior Cycle curriculum in schools.

The stress-busting technique is likely to feature in the new course in Social and Personal Health Education and will be taught in the early years of secondary school.

In the new course, students will be taught to "recognise the links between thoughts, feelings and behaviour". They will also practice relaxation techniques. It's a long way from the Christian Brothers.

This addition comes not long after one professional's argument that there may be a dark side to the mindfulness boom.

London-based psychiatrist Dr Florian Ruths launched an investigation into adverse reactions to therapy based on mindfulness. These reportedly include rare cases of "depersonalisation", where people behave like they are watching their own lives in a film. Some experts wonder whether bingeing on meditation for days on end could be harmful.

Those who study mindfulness are encouraged to spend less time anticipating the stresses of everyday life, or reliving disasters from the past.

Advocates believe the brain's habit of reliving past stresses and fretting about future problems are an obstacle to mental health. People are encouraged to get burdensome thoughts about past and future into perspective so that they no longer dominate their lives.

Instead, one of the most prominent advocates Jon Kabat-Zinn believes we should be anchored in the present and focus on sensations, including our own breathing, and the feelings at the tips of our fingers. He calls it "paying attention on purpose, moment by moment without judging".

Another advocate, former Oxford University Professor Mark Williams, says: "A good example of how it can work is when you're kept awake at night thinking. You toss and turn and you get angry because you can't sleep.

"The anger doesn't help, but you can't seem to stop it. Mindfulness isn't about suppressing these thoughts, but about enabling you to stand back and observe them as if they were clouds going past in the sky. You see them and you cultivate a sense of kindness towards them."

The Dublin-based psychologist Allison Keating of the B-Well Clinic recently did a course in mindfulness, and believes it is an extremely useful technique.

"You don't have to be a Buddhist monk to do this. You just have to be an ordinary person with the normal stresses and concerns."

Several primary schools in Ireland are already using mindfulness as a way of improving concentration and creating an atmosphere of calm in the classroom.

Allison Keating welcomes its introduction in Irish second-level schools.

"It will be a good way of teaching adolescents emotional resilience and improving focus."

As a psychologist, Alison Keating believes that one of the most important issues for teenagers is their tendency to be easily distracted.

"As a result of social media, adolescents at that age can find it hard to stay focused and that is becoming an issue in school.

"With mindfulness you are encouraged to stay focused on something for much longer periods of time. If adolescents could concentrate on one thing for, say, 40 minutes it would reduce a lot of stress."

Allison Keating says young children often have the ability to be engrossed in something.

"Somewhere along the line, however, we lose that ability. We miss out on chunks of our life, because we are too busy ruminating on the past, or rushing to plan ahead."

Some Irish primary schools use mindfulness CDs in class in a programme developed in Mayo by Derval Dunford and Ann Caulfield.

The children are asked to visualise certain things. They might start with belly breathing. They imagine a balloon in their stomach and think of a colour, and then they breathe out.

One track, The Wishing Well, encourages children to sprinkle positive thoughts on themselves, on those they love, and those who have annoyed them. Another track encourages kids to focus on aspects of their lives that bring them happiness.

The programme is used at St Ultan's Primary school in Cherry Orchard. Teacher Aoife Slack uses it every day, but never for more than five minutes. She finds it a good way of of moving from one activity to the next.

Mindfulness is seen by its fans as the ultimate antidote to our frenzied modern lifestyle of buzzing phones, social media and the always-on 24-hour society.

But ironically, many of its users are coming to it via new technology, quietly lying in the floor in a state of mindfulness and communing blissfully with their smartphone or iPad apps.

In Silicon Valley, fortunes have been made by electronic mindfulness therapies that are are billed as "gym membership for the mind". Few companies are as enthusiastic about the meditation technique as Google, which actually has a head of mindfulness, Chade-Meng Tan, also known as the 'Jolly Good Fellow'.

Elsewhere, mindfulness enthusiasts have expressed concern about some of the thousands of courses available.

Psychiatrist Dr Florian Ruths told The Guardian this week: "Mindfulness is delivered to potentially vulnerable people with mental illness, including depression and anxiety. So it needs to be taught by people who know the basics about those illnesses, and when to refer people for specialist help".

Other mindfulness experts have highlighted rare incidents, where some Buddhist meditators suffer a "dark night", where they are assailed by "traumatic memories".

These incidents mostly take place after prolonged periods of meditation lasting weeks.

Overall, however, most research findings about mindfulness have been overwhelmingly positive. A review by researchers at the University of Montreal of 209 studies said the technique worked well as a treatment for a variety of psychological problems.

The researchers concluded that "it is especially effective for reducing anxiety, depression and stress".

Breathe easy with Aisli’s stories

Aisli Madden is set to become a familiar figure on our TV screens this autumn as presenter of the RTE show Domestic Divas.

She is also an enthusiastic advocate of mindfulness and is writing a series of children’s books, based on the stress-busting technique.

Aisli’s mother Deirdre Madden was a well-known figure in education circles and wrote the bestselling Home Economics text book for the Junior Cert.

“When my mother passed away, I was 23, and I went through a very difficult time. I wasn’t suffering from depression but I found it difficult to find happiness and I looked for it anywhere I could.

“I was taking words of wisdom from the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra. I was searching and searching.

“Then I discovered mindfulness and I found that it really helped. It’s about bringing your focus to the present moment. It gives people confidence to do whatever it is they need to achieve their goals.

It helps you to redirect your energy from negative feelings and turn life’s experience to your best advantage.

Aisli’s Buddabugz books will have mindfulness messages built into them, and teaches breathing exercises.

“Breathing controls so much about how we feel, and I felt that it was something that everybody should know about and not just people who are into yoga and Buddhism.

“It’s a good idea to have the techniques in school, because maybe stress will be a less important issue if children learn to handle it at a young age.”

Irish Independent