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What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness has been defined in various ways by teachers, practitioners, and researchers. Thich Nhat Hanh, a widely-read Buddhist monk, defines mindfulness as “keeping one’s consciousness alive to the present reality”. MBSR(Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) founder Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”. Grossman noted that “mindfulness is a difficult concept to define, let alone operationalize”. At the core of most definitions of mindfulness is a focus on the “here and now” (Herndon, 2008, p. 32), which requires “giving full attention to the present” (Thondup, 1996, p. 48) Although definitions vary, most conceptualizations of mindfulness have three common elements:
1. Giving full attention to the present
2. Paying close attention to both internal and external phenomena
3. Paying attention to stimuli in an open and accepting way, with non-judgment.
Why Mindfulness? And why at Apni Shala?
The present research investigated the idea that mindfulness reduces emotional exhaustion and improves job satisfaction. When something challenging happens at work, a mindful employee will not simply react and judge what is happening emotionally, rather they will consider it with a more adaptive stance. Furthermore, mindfulness may also relate to job satisfaction because it increases self-determined behavior. (Source: Hülsheger, U. R., Alberts, H. J. E. M., Feinholdt, A., & Lang, J. W. B. (2013).
At Apni Shala we believe that the team’s personal and professional development and wellbeing is critical to the creation of safe spaces for students, young people, educators and families that we work with. Therefore one of the philosophies that aligns with wellbeing that we value and bring into our work at Apni Shala is Mindfulness. A great plus is that when we think of the 5 primary SEL competency areas that Apni Shala works on, they connect beautifully with mindfulness. Whether it is awareness of emotions, compassion and non judgement towards self and others, or non reactivity it becomes easily visible how they map to Self awareness, Self management, Relationship skills, Social awareness or Decision making.
In this article, we focus on our journey as a team with mindfulness and some of the learning our team has drawn from practicing mindfulness themselves and from integrating the principles in our work as well.
Journey with mindfulness at Apni Shala
When we began creating a curriculum in 2012-13 for Social Emotional Learning(SEL) sessions to be taken to our classrooms, one of the first learning we had is that students came into, and left from our sessions with very different energies. For eg: Being very active from a PE class before the SEL session, carrying some disappointment from an argument or a fight with a friend, curiosity or wondering from an interesting class before, excitement from a game they played during the session, or some heaviness from a conversation that brought unpleasant emotions in the session. All of this indicated that it would be futile to expect that all students would be ready to begin conversations or activities around SEL, or leave with some sort of closure as soon as they entered or left our sessions.
So, we began including emotion check-ins, breathing exercises, etc. all the while not knowing that these were all attempts at bringing mindfulness into our circle. It was 2 years ago in our journey of strengthening our curriculum that we were able to more intentionally make it part of what we do. We recognized its value and also realized that for us to truly bring the practices of mindfulness into the classrooms we would have to understand and practice it ourselves. And thus began a learning and growing journey for us as a team.
Our journey of learning about mindfulness began with gaining conceptual clarity. Let us look at three such key concepts here:
1) The five pillars: Mindfulness is based on five basic pillars as stated in the diagram.
Source: (Inner Space counselling and assessment)
2) Direct and default network: is a concept of mindfulness that helps distinguish how our mind works in situations. A default network is also called a narrative network- one where we make stories, daydream, or go into the past or the future. For example, when you are eating you think about something that happened earlier that day or will happen later in the day. A direct network is a network that directly relates to the present moment. For example: While eating you are aware that you are eating and you are able to taste, feel the texture, and the sensations that the food brings with it.
3) Fight & flight and Rest & Digest: are ideas that tell us how our bodies and minds respond to situations of stress or perceived threat and how it also finds a way to recuperate or cope with situations. The fight or flight response is the body’s response to threats by either fleeing situations or working through the situation with a surge of energy. Rest and digest is the way for the body to relax after having dealt with a stressor or a threat. (Sources: Compassionate counselling training program)
How are we integrating mindfulness in our work at Apni Shala?
Mindfulness concepts have found their way in our curriculum, training, and supervision spaces. Below we are sharing some of the ways mindfulness has been integrated into our organizational practices:
The SEL curriculum: Apni Shala’s SEL curriculum is co-created with the integration of what we learn from our work with our stakeholders. The curriculum continues to evolve as we learn and integrate what our participants share and experience, what the context offers, and what our facilitators observe.
As a pilot integration project for grade 8’s SEL curriculum, we partnered with the Mindful Spring team to review the curriculum and rewrite it with a mindfulness lens. From here, this is further percolated in other grades as well. Some of the ways in which we have intentionally integrated mindfulness in our curriculum are:
- We begin and end our sessions or classes with meditation. We work with students to build the practice of breath meditation in the session to help calm down and bring their attention to the classroom.
- We strive to ensure that the language used by facilitators and teachers is one that is non blaming, non-judging, and compassionate. This helps to model some of the little things that our learners can themselves do in their interactions in and outside the classroom.
- We have included activities such as ‘the red bus’ that use guided imagery. This activity requires learners to make the analogy of buses as thoughts. There are different bus routes that go to different places, and we get onto only the bus that leads us home or to our destination. In the same way, our mind may want to grab onto every thought that we see passing by but we need to pick only the one that is in the present.
Internal and external training: All of our staff attend training to help better understand and integrate mindfulness in their work with students, families, educators, and each other.
Most recently, the Apni Shala team participated in 8 days of an online course called Practitioners Masterclass: Compassionate Counselling Program for Trainers and Development organised by Antarang Foundation, Mindful Spring, and EMpower. Some of the other ways that we continue to practice mindfulness are to include breath meditation, body scan or grounding practices at the start of or end of our training with the team, creating space and flexibility for silent or quiet spaces in the office, and supporting supervision spaces with mindfulness practices.
Practicing Mindfulness: Learning about something is the first step, and implementing it in our life becomes the next step. In the process of getting to the next step, our team reflected on the learnings and challenges of practicing mindfulness. We hope this offers insights to you as you begin your journey with the practice.
What were some challenges in this process?
The mindfulness practice for many of us can bring up resistance, challenges, and joy depending on each of our readiness, will, and contextual differences.
- In the initial few days of beginning mindfulness practice, it was not easy for some to close their eyes and sit in a place for more than 10 minutes. What helped is that they tried to keep their gaze at one place and anchor themselves.
- Some shared that they were facing difficulty in understanding a few of the mindfulness concepts. Many spent time reading more about it and also exchanging learning and experiences with colleagues to better understand and engage with it.
- For some of us, it’s not easy to be in the present because our minds keep going in the past and start making stories. But practicing mindfulness consistently is what helped many of us to cope with the restlessness.
- Practicing mindfulness also came with some practical challenges because of the different places we come from. There could be a lack of physical space or something in our social or cultural context which makes mindfulness difficult for some. The way to get around this for our team was to practice mindfulness before or after our office hours or find out spaces other than home such as walking alone or while bathing or eating.
The road ahead
In the past year, we have found so many of our staff members sharing the impact mindfulness practice makes to their lives. For some it is now a big part of their self care practices that helps them respond to all kinds of situations at home, during work etc. Particularly at a time like the pandemic and the lock down, many of our staff have shared how mindfulness practices have supported their wellbeing. We have recognized how learning and attempting to integrate mindfulness in our work has made it possible to offer compassion in our relationships with one another as a team and with all those we work with. We would love to hear about our readers’ experiences with mindfulness as well. Please do share in the comments section below.