heather grace: mindfulness & self-compassion

Helping adults and children to create a more joyful and harmonious life…

Category: Mindfulness in Education

torchlight of attention

Educating ourselves with our attention

I have just spent the day at the Mindfulness in Schools Project’s ‘The Future of Mindfulness in Education Conference’ in London, and had the rare privilege of hearing Jon Kabat-Zinn speak, alongside other inspirational speakers such as Rohan Gunatillake (creator of the ‘Buddhify’ app), Chris Ruane MP (the ‘driving force’ of mindfulness amongst MPs), Cathie Paine, Oren Ergas and Katherine Weare.

flowerThe adult speakers each spoke with heart, presence and hope for the future, and I shall write more once I have fully integrated all that I learned through the day, but I wanted to share what I shall remember most clearly about the day: the voices of the children and young people – the youngest only 7 years old – who brought us to tears when telling of the difference that mindfulness had made to their young lives.  Sixteen year old Emily told of how her mindfulness practice had helped her to come through the bombing at the Ariana Grande concert at Manchester Arena in 2017 .  Seven year-old Maya explained that she’s no longer nearly as arrogant as she used to be and that she has learned to manage her anger.  She led us in a petal practice, where we opened and closed our hands in time with our in-breath and out-breath, and afterwards she noted that it made little sense for teachers to tell pupils to be in a good mood and to listen well when they weren’t actually doing this themselves.  Proof, if it was needed, that the role of a teacher is not that of expert disseminator of knowledge, for this little human being had discovered wisdom all of her own.  As teachers, we are simply midwives, helping to bring forth the innate wisdom of those we guide.

May we grow in our ability to rest in not knowing, not knowing it all, and perhaps not even knowing anything!

May we grow in our ability to let go of the need to be ‘right’.

May we let go of expert’s mind and embrace beginner’s mind, recognising the dedication required to practise this over and over again, in each moment.

May we have the wisdom to learn from our children.


school lesson image

Don’t Stay in School?

student stressIn February last year I embarked on a journey of study for a PhD in Education, studying mindfulness and self-compassion in schools. My quest has led me to ask questions about the very nature of education… when we send our kids to school, what is it that we are hoping for? The preoccupation with ‘effectiveness’ of our education system (and there are those who ask, “effective for what?“) has obscured the bigger questions such as what it is that we hope for our education system to achieve – what’s important to society, and what’s important to the pupils themselves? Our schools test pupils to the point of overload, such that teachers are leaving the profession in droves and pupils are suffering increasingly from anxiety and depression, among other disorders.

I live with 3 teenagers and I’m only too painfully aware that much of what they learn in school will most likely never be of any use to them in their lifetime. Learning the anatomy of a frog via dissection will – I suggest – be of no use to my 15-year-old son who wishes to become a quantum physicist.

A YouTube video by Dave Brown called ‘Don’t Stay in School’, brought to my attention by my 17-year-old son, captures the irrelevance to pupils of much of what is taught in schools.  The video has had over 15 million views – this suggests there’s a message here that resonates with many!

“Could we discuss domestic abuse and get the facts
or how to help my depressed friend with their mental state?”
Ummm… no but learn mental maths
because, “You won’t have a calculator with you every day!”

Schools teach simultaneous equations, how to play the recorder and tongue taste maps (does anyone actually care which part of the tongue is responsible for recording sweet tastes, and which is responsible for salty and sour?) but rarely teach our kids how to hold their thoughts in a balanced awareness or how they might direct kindness towards difficult inner-experience.

If aliens from outer-space are watching humankind with all of our deep divisions and suffering, they must quite justifiably think that we’re utterly insane!

As part of my PhD, I’ve created an adolescent version of the Mindfulness Based Living Course – it’s called ‘Mindfulness Based Living Course – Young Adults (MBLC-YA)’.  I had been teaching mindfulness in some of Scotland’s more forward-thinking schools and the curriculum that I was delivering was well-received, but there was a notable absence of the compassion element and an emphasis on training the mind rather than getting in touch with the deeper wisdom of the body – most especially the heart.

I recognised, of course, that talking to teens (particularly early teens) about the deep wisdom of the body would likely result in sniggers and yawns, and so the MBLC-YA approaches kindness and compassion in a way that I think all of us can approach it – with humour, gentleness and a real recognition that our ability to grow kindness can help to make the world a better place.  Teens really get this, and if the sessions engage them and meet them where they’re at, then their natural passion and enthusiasm to create real change in the world can be harnessed.

learning to love ourselves imageThe MBLC-YA is the only secondary-school mindfulness curriculum in the UK, at the present time, that specifically aims to increase pupils’ levels of self-compassion as well as mindfulness.  In research-terms, teaching self-compassion in schools is promising in the potential benefits it may confer, but it’s very, very new.

Teaching self-compassion in schools and other youth organisations is a radical act of creating the world we want to see and I feel deeply privileged to be part of this movement.  Why not join me at the cutting-edge?!

Click here for more information about training to teach the Mindfulness Based Living Course for Young Adults (MBLC-YA)

Teach a child mindfulness – the ‘No Ordinary Moments’ game

The game that I’m going to describe can be a complete game-changer if you play it often enough – both for you and for any child you play it with.  It’s really the game of life as it is supposed to be played, and it really harnesses the power of a child’s mind (and yours too).  It’s not a traditional kind of a game where there’s a winner, but if the idea of a game where there’s no winner leaves you cold, then perhaps you can make the winner the person who’s judged to have best found the extraordinary amidst the seemingly ‘ordinary’.

So here goes.  The rules.  Because you probably want rules, right?  Well there’s really only one in this game, and it’s that we’re just describing what we notice rather than making things up.

Before you begin. Assemble whoever is playing – it may be just you and a child or you and a whole classroom of children.  Drop anchor.  By this I mean invite everyone present to move their attention down into their body, perhaps noticing the contact between any parts of the body and the floor.  Spend a few moments noticing the movement of the breath in and out of the body.  You’ve now moved into a more experiential mode of being, and so you’re ready to begin.

Take turns describing.  Each person takes a turn to describe why this moment is a special moment.  Each person starts by saying, “This is no ordinary moment because I’m noticing…” and then proceeds to describe in glorious detail whatever they’re noticing.  An example may be helpful here, and is part of my experience right now:

This is no ordinary moment because I’m noticing the branches of a tree moving out of the corner of my eye.  As I turn my head towards it, I’m noticing how the light is reflecting off the shiny surface of the leaves and some raindrops falling between the leaves each time a breeze moves the branches. I notice a moment of feeling thankful for this tree outside of my window because it’s so beautiful, and this thankful feeling right now feels like a lightness in my chest and I notice that I’m smiling a little.

You may be thinking, “Ah, but I have no tree handy”.  Fear not, you’re having an experience, right?  Here is another example, so you get the picture and see (hopefully) that there really aren’t any ordinary moments.  The extraordinary is to be found everywhere!

This is no ordinary moment because I’m noticing the sensations in my back right now as my body moves a little to keep me balanced.  I’m noticing how my chest moves outwards as I breathe in, and how I can feel the soft fabric of my top moves slightly against my shoulders as I breathe.  I’m noticing some strands of hair touching my face very lightly, and it tickles slightly.

Keep taking turns, getting more and more detailed in your quality of noticing, until the child cues that they’ve had enough – trying to continue past that point will most likely result in not wanting to play the game again.  You might want to start the game by noticing the big things, i.e. a really broad awareness of the whole environment, and then start to home in more and more on the little things.  This is so helpful in teaching children focusing skills, and the ability to move between broad awareness and narrow focus.

The idea for this game was inspired by this YouTube video clip of part of the wonderful Peaceful Warrior movie by Dan Millman.  The idea that, “There’s never nothing going on” is incredibly powerful, and what this game aims to teach.  I’d love to hear how you get on with it!

Wishing you so much joy and happiness on your journey.

Heather x

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