Introducing mindfulness to at-risk youth poses special challenges.
Ali and Atman Smith, and Andy Gonzalez of Holistic Life Foundation help children in one of Baltimore’s toughest neighborhoods find calm and confidence through yoga and meditation. Sam Himelstein, Behavioral Health Clinician at the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center incorporates mindfulness with his young patients’ therapy.
All four men participated in last years Bridging the Hearts and Minds of Youth conference. They offered 4 practical tips to help educators, counselors and parents effectively introduce young people to mindfulness practices.
1. Meet them where they are. They may not be ready to sit upright, or even close their eyes. Start with simple steps, such as focus on your breathing.
2. Make it practical. Let them know that they can return to their breath, or focus on their thoughts no matter where they are or what they’re doing. This will help them practice more often.
3. Clarify the session. For instance, tell them, “We’re going to focus on our breath and notice whatever comes in.” It helps set expectations.
4. Don’t be attached to formality. Setting strict conditions is unrealistic. It may prevent people from wanting to practice.
HLF at TedX
If you’re having trouble connecting with the young people you work with, fear not. There’s hope. It works. Holistic Life Foundation gave a TedX Talk about the effectiveness of their work in the community. HLF started in 2001 with 20 fifth-grade boys. The foundation’s after-school program introduced yoga, mindfulness, urban gardening, and teamwork. In a city where the dropout rate for high school students is routinely higher than 50%, 19 of those first 20 boys graduated and the other got his GED.
Watch the 2012 and 2013 Bridging the Hearts and Minds of Youth conferences for more insights behind the research and practice of mindful techniques in educational settings.
Dan Harris, co-anchor of ABC’s Nightline, had a panic attack on air several years ago. As he recounts in his latest NPR interview, it’s the stuff of nightmares.
“My heart started racing. My mind was racing. My palms were sweating. My mouth dried up. My lungs seized up. I just couldn’t breathe,” he remembered.
After the ordeal, Dan discussed ways to address his panic attacks and stress with friends and health providers. Meditation was frequently suggested. But Harris remained a skeptic. “That’s only for people who are into crystals and Cat Stevens, use the word namaste un-ironically, and live in a yurt.”
Meditation still has a “bad rap” as too weird or difficult. But fortunately that’s changing. What helped changed Dan’s mind was the growing neuroscience research on the real benefits of this ancient practice.
Mirabai Bush: For a long time there was a lot of resistance to introducing mindful techniques in some of the organizations I worked with. But as soon as people agree to try it, the benefits become very obvious. Participants become more calm, more clear. They begin to have better insight into what’s happening, and they begin to get along better with the people they’re working with. So once people agree to try it, there’s really no problem. But there is still resistance to trying it, although much less since the publication of the neuroscientific research on mindfulness. All the work that’s come from Richard Davidson and others has really helped people get past a certain level of resistance and skepticism.
Daniel Goleman: I can give you a little background on that change. You mentioned Davidson. He is now a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Richard and I were fellow graduate students at Harvard. He was the other one who was interested in meditation. He did his dissertation on attention and so on, and he has gone on to develop a field called Contemplative Neuroscience, which has upgraded the quality of the research on mindfulness and meditation.
Until Richard’s work, frankly, some was great, and some was terrible. Now this research is using fMRIs and state-of-the-art brain imaging. What it’s showing is what we knew intuitively when we were in India, which is that these practices can be quite transformative. And if you practice them a lot, it’s really transformative. If you practice a little, it’s still transformative.
What we found in the research on relaxation was that one of the byproducts of focusing your mind is that your body lets go and relaxes. And the reason it lets go is that one of the things that keeps us stressed is these tight loops of thoughts and ruminations — ”what’s on my mind, what’s upsetting me” — which are hard to let go. Meditation training, whether it’s mindfulness or any other kind of meditation, teaches you how to drop those upsetting thoughts. Our understanding is that it’s the letting go of those thoughts, putting your mind in a neutral or present place and keeping it there, that causes the body to be able to drop the tension, let go of the stress, and then get deeply relaxed.
He talks more about the book’s mission in the interview. “I honestly believe meditation is the next big public health revolution. The big problem is that there’s this PR issue around meditation. People think it’s either too weird or too difficult. And so my goal is to dispel both myths and to say, A, if a skeptic like me is doing it, you can do it. And, B, if somebody with the attention span of a kitten, like me, is doing it, you can, too.”
California has always been open to the next new thing, whether a technology, a vintner’s innovation, or what the cultural winds blow in from over the Pacific. That’s how I first tried meditation, back when I was a student at the University of California in Berkeley, then the epicenter of the try-any-new-thing attitude.
As a competitive undergrad, my first impression of meditation was that it eased my worries. I used it as an anti-anxiety measure. Like a pill, I took it morning and evening. Those late in the day sessions proved another benefit: as a chronically sleep-deprived sophomore, I would nod off for a nap as soon as my meditation started.
Meditation trains attention by having us focus on one target (such as a mantra or the breath). Then comes the crucial difference between meditation and other ways to relax, whether exercising or spacing out online: in meditation, when we notice our minds wandering, we bring them back to a mental target and keep them there. Then when it wanders again, repeat. And again and again.
The research shows that this mental gym pays off after the session, throughout our day: meditation enhances people’s ability to concentrate, to keep their minds from wandering too much, and to focus in general. “Every time my mind wanders off during a business meeting,” one executive told me, “I ask myself, What opportunity did I just miss?”
A caution, though, if you’re thinking of starting meditation. Many people expect that they will somehow experience a high during the session. But the practice is more like going to the gym: at first it can be a struggle, though it gets easier over time. Many first-timers report, for instance, that their minds are more wild than ever during meditation, actually a sign that they are finally paying attention to how often our minds wander.
The CEO of a construction firm, a meditator himself, asked me to share these methods with those working at his headquarters. Understandably many were dubious. But I approach the method as a way to train the mind, not as some woo-woo magic, and the science behind it brought people around enough to give it a try. The CEO later told me the most enthusiastic person turned out to be his head of HR; she organized an ongoing meditation group there. And she was initially one of the skeptics.
Now that I’m in my 60s, the finding I like best comes from Harvard Medical School: some parts of the brain that shrink with aging actually seem to grow larger and their neurons more densely connected in meditators!
More Than Sound’s founder, Hanuman Goleman, wrote an article for Buddhist Insight Network about how his personal mindfulness practice guides the content he publishes.
“I listen to the news on the radio each morning. So much of what I hear is about the strife and difficulty of people, animals, and our entire habitat. Many of the actions I hear about seem so clearly rooted in greed, hatred, or delusion. Since I started my formal meditation practice in the late 80s during my teenage years, I have had an interest in mental constructs, specifically memes – self-replicating ideas. The ramifications of concepts being contagious from person to person are quite profound for me. In the extreme, there is dogmatic and thoughtless nationalism. But in a more subtle way, the fears and aggressions of our parents and our community easily become integrated into our own beliefs and worldview, even through hearing a simple radio program.
When I hear the news, I perceive what’s being conveyed as the physical manifestation of deep mental-emotional habits. I understand through my own practice that it’s possible for any habit to arise in anyone given the proper conditions. I have also seen the deconstruction of habitual tendencies through kind, honest, humble, and vigilant awareness. It is this possibility of transforming unhealthy habits that drives the work we do at More Than Sound.
More Than Sound (MTS) is a media publishing company that offers tools for developing mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and leadership skills. I started MTS in 2007 without a clear direction. Through my father, Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence, I had the opportunity to publish CDs that would immediately have an international audience. I did it because I was looking for something to do, but after a couple of years, this minimal motivation became quite unfulfilling.
Through subsequent introspection and contemplation, it became clear to me that there are at least two core aspects of running a business that I want to be informed by my own Dharma practice. The first concerns the business structure, the office environment, and the well-being of my colleagues. The second is the potential effects of the publications we send into the world.
It’s important to me that meditation practice is a part of our work environment at More Than Sound; in fact, I am not interested in working somewhere that doesn’t integrate some contemplation and awareness into the office life. The reason is that meditation helps release fixed ideas and bring clarity and wisdom to our work, so that we are both more effective as a business and acting more in alignment with our personal values.
I find that I often have ideas about how I am feeling or about what is happening. Sometimes these ideas are loud and pushy, and become my primary experience by forcing my sensory experience out of the way. Other times, they are more subtle, existing as some lingering effect from an earlier experience. When unnoticed and left to their own devices, my ideas act as a powerful filter that influences the emotional tone of experience, as well as my whole state of being.
But when I can tune in to my raw, moment-to-moment experience, the loud ideas often prove to be quite fragile, and may simply fall away. And the subtler ones can be brought into awareness, so that they no longer have free reign on informing experience.
I have seen time and time again that consciously bringing attention to my experience as it unfolds allows me to notice some of the filters that are informing how I feel. This basic act of bringing awareness is often sufficient to release the holding pattern, leaving me with a more accurate view of my experience as well as a feeling of alignment. My mind is more spacious, clear, and focused. I am able to make decisions that feel wiser and more in line with the thoughtful and caring person that I would like to be.
I wished to bring this mindfulness practice into More Than Sound’s office environment. Imagine a meeting with six people, each of whom is having his or her own difficulties, joys, and distractions. Situations can easily be misunderstood through the various emotional filters that sift experience and give it a personal spin. I felt that simply sitting silently together, each bringing attention to her or his inner world and going through this process of alignment, would create a shared environment of less internal distraction, more focus and openness. A flow to our collective work endeavors would be more available without being blocked by our personal distractions. It is important to say that I don’t mean ignoring or avoiding any difficult emotions, but rather cultivating an inner orientation of spaciousness and alignment that cannot be subsumed by a particular thought or emotion. It is in this state that moments of creativity and focus are common.
Implementing mindfulness practice into the workplace was certainly different than talking about it. I experimented with a few ways of including meditation. At first I set an alarm on my computer to ring every 30 minutes. When we heard the alarm, we would all drop what we were doing and sit together in silence for 3 minutes. This was a bit disruptive to the workflow. We also tried 5 minutes every hour and 10 minutes before lunch, and finally arrived at having a sitting before our meetings. The sitting varies in length and is either in silence or guided from tracks of meditation instructions. Most recently, we have started sitting together in the morning too. These elements have created a nourishing work environment for all of us.
Spreading Ideas and Mental Habits with Intention
The second core facet of More Than Sound that is important to me is directly related to my interest in mental constructs and memes. Publishing is essentially the business of spreading ideas. If one publishes hate-filled vitriol, then those are the thoughts and state of mind they are spreading into the world. But similarly, one can publish material that brings benefit – for example, truthfully examining the human condition, offering some possibility of reducing conflict or pain, and suggesting ways that we can cultivate healthy, positive states. It is important to me that my work is a healthy influence, an agent of alleviating suffering in this difficult world.
The key is to be aware of the mental and emotional habits operating behind our actions. Our work at MTS encourages people to become aware of their habits and offers tools to do so. We can all see mental habits that are unskillful, and with some looking, we can also see habits that are skillful and healthy. Simple awareness is a transformative tool in shifting habits toward greater health.
I am inspired by the quality and potential for benefit of our products. Since I started MTS, mindfulness has become a buzzword in American pop culture. People are offering mindfulness instruction after doing very little practice themselves. We ensure the integrity of the instructions that we offer by working with authors who are rooted in Dharma traditions and have many years of practice and teaching.
One of the main topics that we highlight is the development of leadership qualities. Many leadership competencies are qualities that I have found to arise naturally from Dharma practice. SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management, offers a list of leadership competencies that includes: managing change, demonstrating ethics and integrity, increasing self-awareness, and developing adaptability. These could have been pulled from Dharma instructions for householder life. These are also some of the qualities that make us effective, positive influences in the world at large.
I would like to see a world with more emotionally stable, generous, and kind people who recognize and understand that we are all in this together. This is true in at least two ways. In Buddhist terms, we are all subject to the Eight Worldly Winds: pleasure and pain, praise and blame, fame and disrepute, gain and loss. We are also all literally “in this together.” We have decided national borders and come up with allegiances and group identities that offer some illusion of separation – someone as “other” – but the reality of our situation is that this planet is effectively a closed system. Every action has an effect, so whatever the emotion and intent from which we act, we are propagating the same.
Developing MTS has been a journey of trial, error and improvement – both in commerce and in management. I am thankful that mindfulness is part of our workday and hope to integrate more collective mindful moments into the environment here. I’m also happy that we are spreading that intention outward.”
Q: I’m curious how to balance the three types of focus in the fast-paced high tech world. It seems there are fewer and fewer spaces for having a focused, connected conversation that embraces empathy and compassion.
A: Good question. The faster the pace, the bigger the challenge. It does take a bit of non-goal focused time to tune in and connect with the other person. You may not be able to do this on every phone call, but it’s worth doing at some point during the day or week, especially with people you work with continuously. A genuine connection, one with mutual empathy and interest creates a better container for communication when the pressure is high. You might find this article helpful > Focus on how you connect
Q: I am currently working on a venture to help students focus on school work (through the use of mindfulness and creating focused environments for doing school work). I noticed you have several teen podcasts. How do you recommend teaching these to young students? I know that young adults are beginning to realize the importance of mindfulness for daily life, but what is the best way to approach this with elementary/ high-school students?
A: I’m thrilled to hear that you’re doing this. I think it’s important to understand that young people can learn to improve their focus, and that this also makes them more ready to learn. This seems a logical next step to add to curriculum in schools everywhere. I think it’s important to do this in an age-appropriate way. I’ve seen second graders in Spanish Harlem lie on the floor with their favorite stuffed animal on their tummy, and watch it rise on the in breath, counting 1, 2, 3…, and same on the out breath. Five minutes of this made the classroom calmer and more focused for the rest of the day. I know teens who have actually gone on retreats, and done this much of the day. The benefits are very real at the brain level, shifting moods toward the positive, enhancing concentration, and speeding recovery from stress arousal. Here’s an Edutopia video about “Breathing Buddies.”
Q: Why do we see so much variation in kids’ ability (or lack of) to manage those three types? Nature vs. nurture?
A: Our ability to focus on ourselves, on other people, or on the world at large, is a combination of nature and nurture, but mostly nurture. For instance, kids with ADHD may get that label because adults don’t realize that the attention circuitry of the brain continues to develop from birth to the mid-20s. Adults think seven-year-old kids should act like 12-year-olds, and give them the diagnosis on ADD. However, teaching kids to focus and getting them to practice focusing can help them concentrate when they need to. But schools don’t do this. They expect kids to have the skill. We should nurture these abilities in children by helping them along. Here’s a sample track from my Focus for Teens CD.
Q: What is the relationship between focus and grit?
A: Grit is the term psychologist Angela Duckworth uses for the ability to keep your focus on long term goals and strive for them despite setbacks. The ability to focus is the center this capacity. Cognitive control, being able to focus on one thing that’s important and ignore distractions, is essential to every step toward that larger goal. Both grit and cognitive control can be classified as self-regulation, which is a major part of emotional intelligence. This article might be of interest to you > How children learn self-control
Q: (Question from Dan Goleman to the group): Does anyone have a manager with empathy deficit disorder? (Participant response): I have had a few, very smart, but also very driven by his own needs. I survived being fired by focusing on what they did right, but staying silent when I didn’t agree. Not easy while trying to keep my sense of honor alive and well.
A: Sorry to hear about your bad bosses. The best ones pay attention to the feelings and needs of direct reports in a fashion that’s like good parenting. This lets people feel secure enough to take smart risks, to innovate, to be creative. This leadership style has great return for companies. Learn more about this in my discussion with George Kohlrieser.
Q: What is the main obstacle to focus?
A: There are two obstacles to focus. Both of which have to do with how we manage our inner world. First: emotional distractions. These are the things in our lives, often relationships, that trouble us, but we can’t stop thinking about. Rumination is the most powerful distraction. On the other hand, thinking them through, and let the worry go is a good thing. Second: mindlessness. Our mind wanders and loses focus. The good news, mindfulness can be strengthened like a muscle. We can develop a habit of monitoring our attention and bring it back to what’s most important. Read more about this concept here > The two biggest distractions – and how to avoid them
Q: What’s the connection between focus and discipline?
A: Another word for self-discipline is cognitive control, a term neuroscientists use for the ability to hold our attention on the one thing that’s important in the moment, and let our distractions go. For instance, do your homework before getting to the Xbox. This is sometimes called impulse control. This ability has been found to predict a child’s financial success and health in her 30s better than IQ, and better than wealth of the family she grew up in. This article might be helpful > How focus changed my thinking about emotional intelligence
A recent Forbes article shared positive data revealing ROI (return-on-investment) for companies offering employee assistance programs designed to help workers better manage stress, enhance well-being, increase engagement, and boost performance.
Organizations that received the American Psychological Association’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award for efforts to promote employee well-being and performance reported an average turnover rate of 6%, as compared to the national average of 38%. Gallup‘s Q12 employee engagement assessment also concluded that companies with higher employee engagement outperformed competitors by 22% on their financials. And companies that made it onto the Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list had annualized stock market returns performing 2X better than general market indices, according to Great Places to Work. As these articles suggest, organizations can receive a number of benefits from providing emotionally intelligent support for their employees to help manage stress at work: