Dean of Pastoral Care

When we engage in mindful learning, we avoid forming mindsets that have been mindlessly accepted to be true.

Ellen Langer

There is much talk about mindfulness and the benefits for one’s health, capacity to learn and openness to the world and new ways of being. But what is mindfulness and why is it deemed to be so important?

Ellen Langer, a writer from Harvard University in the area of mindful learning, defines mindfulness as “a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged with the present, noticing new things and sensitive to context.” While being mindful requires an individual to be still and focus and target their attention, it does not demand we bring things into focus in the same way a camera does (ie by focusing on a single target) but rather, it requires us to pay attention to the stimulus or target and notice new or different things about it. By way of example, bring your thumb up to your eyes for scrutiny. If you try to pay attention to your thumb by holding the image of it still and in a fixed gaze, you will quickly come to see how hard this is and how quickly the image fades. Instead, if you attend to your thumb mindfully by noticing different things about it – perhaps its size, a fleck of dirt, a wayward piece of skin, or broken nail (ie to vary the target of your attention), you will notice how much easier it is to pay attention. Attending mindfully in this way allows one to focus longer, notice more, see things from a different perspective and remember more about the target of our attention.

Mindlessness, on the other hand, means we are trapped by pre-determined categories (such as masculine/feminine, old/young, success/failure, religious/secular), automatic behaviours (habit), and acting from a single perspective (we only see one set of rules or patterns, for example, in some number systems one + one does not equal two). While it is argued that mindlessness frees up limited cognitive resources in the brain, a state of mindlessness does not encourage big picture thinking, innovation or entrepreneurial endeavours. The characteristics of mindfulness are defined as the ability to create new categories, the welcoming of new information and ideas, and exploring things from multiple perspectives.

A recent meta-analysis of over 70 studies comparing over 6000 school-aged young people showed that practising mindfulness strengthens areas of the brain that control executive function and can lead to strong improvements in attention, reduced stress, anxiety and depression, and better academic skills, social skills and self-esteem. In a time where up to 20% of Australian students are disengaged at school, mindfulness is a powerful tool in assisting young people in developing better emotional, behavioural and attention regulation skills that set the crucial foundation for learning and give people the skills and tools to cope better with the pressures of adult life.

In our Loreto Normanhurst context, we explicitly embed mindfulness into our daily lives. Drawing on the Jesuit practice of the Examen, it invites us, above all, to live in the present. The Examen pulls us out of our daily maelstrom and can help reorient us to the present. The midday Gong is another way in which we as a community stop each day, to be mindful and be reminded that we are alive in the present moment. It is an ever increasing challenge today, to stop, pause and be still. It is in doing so that we become even more present to that which matters most in our lives, noticing new things and being open to examining it from multiple perspectives. As Langer notes, “Mindfulness results in an increase in competence; a decrease in stress; and an increase in health and longevity.”

There are some excellent apps that you may wish to explore with your daughter to practise mindfulness further. Some of these include: The Mindfulness App, Headspace, Calm, MINDBODY, Buddhify, Insight Timer, Smiling Mind and Meditation Timer Pro.

References: Langer, E (2000) Mindful Learning Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley

 

Mr Justin Madigan

Dean of Pastoral Care