How Do We Cultivate Mindfulness in Our Children?

A piece I posted on Facebook last week has stuck with me, a short post from PBS’s MindShift blog on how an overreliance on technology can leave a “mindfulness” gap in our children – a world where there is never a disconnect, never a power-down time to recharge and be aware of the present. This dystopian thought, that our kids are inundated with so much media, content, and imagery that has been produced outside of their own minds, without a moment to think, process, or reflect, has caused all kinds of alarm bells to go off in my mind. So I thought I’d dedicate a little blog space to considering what actually constitutes mindfulness, exploring whether or not our kids need it, and how we can incorporate mindfulness practices into their lives – and maybe ours, too.

What is mindfulness? According to Psychology Today, “Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.”

Do your kids get to experience this on a daily basis?

The MindShift author, Aran Levasseur, tells us that the average American consumes 34 gigabytes (about one full-length movie) PLUS 100,000 words of “content” every single day. Highly doubtful then that many children, between school, homework, commuting, extracurricular activities, and what amounts to 3-4 hours of media consumption are experiencing much in the way of mindfulness. Mr. Levasseur also wisely notes that our cultural attitude toward mindfulness, contrary to our Puritan roots of work and constant doing, reeks of the “laziness” associated with boredom, so we Americans tend to think of being present and living in the moment, without goals and measurable achievement to guide us, as a waste of our precious time. As a culture, we view time as a commodity that’s in great scarcity – makes sense if we have so much to do, right?

Being mindful does not mean giving up ambition and technology, keeping no time schedule or having no goals. Just as it’s not the smartphones, videogames, and computer screens themselves that are causing us to ignore the present – it’s the space they fill up, and the frenetic distraction they cause, after our other tasks are done.

Unplugging from technology in order to be still and quiet, researchers say, is beneficial both to well-being as well as academics. Recent studies on the importance of play and the time to daydream point to the benefits of our children tuning out, even for a short time.

Why do we need to be unplugged from technology to be mindful?

On yesterday’s Opinionator blog at the New York Times, A Natural History of the Senses author Diane Ackerman says upfront, “We’re learning about the world without experiencing it up close in all its messy, majestic, riotous detail.” That really hit me; I have felt that during times when I interact with more online friends than real ones, or when I ingest more online “content” than experience time with my family. In her op-ed, “Are We Living in Sensory Overload or Sensory Poverty?” she  says,

“As an antidote I wish schools would teach the value of cultivating presence. As people complain more and more these days, attention spans are growing shorter, and we’ve begun living in attention blinks. More social than ever before, we’re spending less time alone with our thoughts, and even less relating to other animals and nature. Too often we’re missing in action, brain busy, working or playing indoors, while completely unaware of the world around us.”

Sound familiar? How could we get our schools to cultivate presence? Do you have any ideas?

How do we teach mindfulness to our children?

This is the real kicker, the one that causes my face to get hot, because I know that children pay much more attention to what we do than what we say. I’m as addicted and dopamine-high on blog hits and Facebook likes as the next. I would have to say, reluctantly, that they are watching us, in all our time-deprived, attention-deficit, Twitter-checking, manic race to the end.

Perhaps the way to teach mindfulness to our children is to take a deep breath, put down the iPhone, and go catch some fireflies.

I’m outta here.