Maria Cassano

OLD SCHOOL MEDITATION: PRESENCE OF MIND IN AMERICA’S CLASSROOMS

If there is anything that America has always prided itself on (besides NASCAR, reality television, and the invention of bubble wrap) it would be its government’s dedication to making progress, and its citizens’ right to a great education. It might seem strange, then, that even despite all the laws passed each year regarding the US’s educational system, the general layout of it has remained basically the same: memorize, spit back, and—hopefully—retain.

With the world changing more rapidly than ever, you’d think that tactics for effective learning would be changing, too, but aside from the introduction of SMART Boards and the ixnaying of the occasional reproving knuckle-smack, my parents’ primary school experience was roughly identical to mine. We were taught how to follow directions, take orders, and focus for extended periods in an effort to, ultimately, prep us for the eight-to-five-work-day job that many of us would end up having. Still, never in my thirteen years of public schooling did I ever receive a lesson that taught me how to deal with the stresses that this eight-to-five job—or any other difficult life experience, for that matter—would inevitably create.

Since my first year of college, meditation has been my rock, providing the stability and peace of mind that no medication, professional help, or logic ever could. I was lucky enough to fall into this practice by chance, and was intrigued enough to continue research on my own, but with the way our society is so focused on “doing,” most people can’t find the point in sitting still for extended periods of time—yet it’s so much more substantial than that. It’s perceived as a practice reserved for hippies and old guys in Kashaya robes, but in actuality, if there was ever a skill that would be of the utmost importance to implement in people’s lives, it would be learning to take one’s given situation, and, no matter what it was, be content with it.

Mark Epstein, in his book Going on Being, describes the process like this: “The mind softens in meditation through the assumption of a particular mental posture called ‘bare attention,’ in which impartial, nonjudgmental awareness is trained on whatever there is to observe” (7). This description in itself should be enough to clear up the misconceptions that people have about what, exactly, meditation requires. So many people think that it’s all about emptying the mind until it’s just a dark, black void, to which they respond, “I don’t have the self-control or the attention span for that.”

The mind, in actuality, isn’t empty at all; rather, it’s exceptionally focused on one particular thing that exists right now, whether it’s one’s breathing, one’s bodily sensations, or something—a particular noise or image—in one’s surroundings. Epstein goes on to explain, “Problems are not distinguished from solutions in this practice; the mind learns how to be with ambiguity while learning to be fully aware” (7). All that’s required of a meditator, then, is the ability to merely exist at this very moment (which we all have, lest we’d be dead) and the ability to stop judgments from taking us out of this very moment (which is admittedly a bit more difficult, but, I promise you, still manageable).

In fact, if we have any difficulties with this process at all, it can be blamed on the fact that we simply weren’t introduced to it at a young enough age, like other cultures have been. In the same way that small children soak up foreign languages, this ideology—the idea that this present moment is far more important than past woes or future worries—would become second-nature to children who learned how to meditate in, say, first grade. Instead, we’re forced to rewrite our mental processes that tell us, “If you’re not doing something, you’re not making any progress at all.”

Meditation, however, is helping the body and mind to progress a lot further than it might seem. International scientific experiments and studies are linking meditation to an increase in focus, gratitude, empathy, compassion, general happiness, and overall health. Dr. Richard Davidson, for example, a neuroscientist who has done multiple studies on the effects of meditation in the brain, believes that “by meditating, you can become happier, you can concentrate more effectively, and you can change your brain in ways that support that” (Sykes).

One of his studies in particular required that a group of scientists record their stress levels through questionnaires before and after a course in meditation. While they did report less stress and an overall increase in happiness, the study reveals something much more interesting than that. Dr. Davidson measured their brain activity with a neuroimaging machine and found that there was a significant shift of activity from the right hemisphere of the brain into the left. “People with more left-sided activation report that they are more enthusiastic, that they are more active, that they are happier,” Dr. Davidson explains (Sykes). This shows, then, that personality traits that were once considered fixed characteristics—like pessimism, or the inability to concentrate—can in fact be altered through nothing more than concentrated thought. Think about that: taking a personality trait that you don’t like, and having the ability to change it.

Scientists have even started studying the brains of Buddhist monks—some of whom meditate for several hours each day, every day. MRIs show that there are significant physical differences between the brains of those who meditate and those who do not. In regular meditators, there is a noteworthy increase of grey matter, which indicates the creation of new synapses between nerve cells. This means that the brain is physically altering itself at a faster-than-normal rate (Bigger, Better, Faster, More: Brain Doping).

Dr. Sarah Lazar, on the other hand, argues that someone doesn’t need to be a monk in order to reap the benefits. She studied the brains of everyday people—a chef, a lawyer, a doctor—who sat and meditated for less than an hour each day. Amazingly, Dr. Lazar found that the cortexes of their brains were actually structurally different—.1 to .2 millimeters bigger than that of the control group. In particular, the insula (the part of the brain that manages emotions) was found to be thicker in those who had been meditating longer (Sykes). Now, even if you’re not someone who cares much about neuroscience, this will pique your interest: meditation is also directly linked to a release in dopamine—the same neurotransmitter that creates a blissful high when someone uses cocaine or methamphetamine (Bigger, Better, Faster, More: Brain Doping).

I didn’t know any of this scientific stuff when I first started meditating. All I knew was that I was sincerely, hollowly unhappy, and I needed some kind of release. It began, for me, as a nightly ritual—a means of uncoiling the tension in my body so I felt calm enough to sleep. It wasn’t until months later that I got the urge to research it, when I began to feel this overwhelming sense of empathy that had never been there before. My entire childhood and adolescence, I’d try to put myself into other people’s shoes, without much success, and I’d react based solely on what I knew I was supposed to feel. “That sucks,” I’d say to a friend who was breaking down, but it was really just to say anything at all. “You deserve better. I’m sorry.”

Suddenly, though, after this new practice had evolved into the most vital part of my day, a friend’s mental breakdown did suck, and I was sorry. I was unexpectedly able to feel everything that other people felt. This empathy wasn’t just limited to negative emotions; I could feel their happiness, too, rather than the sense of jealousy that’d always been there before, but when it was negative, I found I could help now. I could channel this deep sense of interconnectedness and understanding, and I was able to offer advice or some kind of comforting statement. My friendships improved tenfold, as well as my relationships with family and my ability to connect with near strangers, and, as a result, I found that I was starting to see myself with value—with some kind of purpose.

This year in particular, my external circumstances shouldn’t have (logically) harbored any feelings of internal peace or contentment. Having just transferred to a new university, my surroundings are very reminiscent of the surroundings that caused my unhappiness three years ago—overwhelming change, lack of familiar faces, insecurity about the future, and an immeasurable amount of free time to dwell on the aforementioned—but when I decided to start over, I was sure that if I’d done it once, I could do it again. I’d had no idea that, in the summer leading up to my first semester at this new school, my best friend would develop an acute case of schizophrenia due to an accidental overdose, and would end up committing suicide.

This semester has been a rollercoaster of tearing myself down and building myself up again, but against all odds, a mere five months later in a new place with relatively no support system, I find that I’m steadily regaining my balance. I’m nearly at the point where I have as much focus, awareness, and—believe it or not—optimism as I had before all of this happened. I credit this solely to the mind’s ability to find happiness within nothing more than the given moment, and my own dumb luck in stumbling across this practice three years ago.

If meditation were to be introduced into American schools, people wouldn’t still believe that their contentment was dependent on life cooperating with them, or the jobs they had, or even the amount of income they made. Roko Belic’s 2011 documentary, Happy reveals that after a person earns enough money to meet his or her basic needs, any increase in salary—even a significantly large one—doesn’t raise said person’s level of contentment. What does make someone happier, Belic found, was compassion, meaningful relationships, and gratitude, and if meditation is able to chemically change someone’s brain so that these things come about on their own, why isn’t this practice considered important enough to be taught as a class, just like math or history?

Some teachers, like Frank Young, for instance, have started to utilize the benefits of meditation in a classroom setting. A professor at the School of Visual Arts, Young begins every graphic design class with a half-hour meditation. He argues that “if students are not focused and relaxed, they may very well fall victim to the ‘monkey mind,’ a term used by some Buddhists to describe being distracted by stray thoughts and emotions” (“Using Meditation to Heighten”). Still, while this is a great start, it’s not enough. For one, in this instance, meditation is being taught to college students who probably hadn’t been introduced to the practice previously, and therefore might’ve experienced some kind of mental resistance that would limit their progress. For another, it’s being taught as a focus aid for graphic design rather than a course in itself—one that can be utilized in all aspects of life. Even in cases where young children are exposed to and helped by meditation, like in an experiment published within The Journal of Child & Family Studies, it’s usually introduced to children who suffer from ADHD and other behavioral problems (Bögels 777).

In countries that accept meditation as a way of life (like India, China, and other eastern nations) children are far more likely to come across this practice while their brains are still developing, and as a result, it’s much easier for them to grasp onto a state of relaxation and impartial awareness. This very acceptance of personal ability gives rise to the main divide between eastern medicine and western medicine.

Cultures that meditate regularly often believe in a holistic approach—the idea that mind, body, and spirit are all interconnected, and through focusing the mind and channeling life-force energy, humans possess the ability to heal themselves. Western doctors, who learn their practice on corpses and therefore aren’t familiar with energy flow, are more likely to prescribe medication, and while medication may cover up the symptoms of an illness, it doesn’t necessarily fix the cause of it. In the aforementioned experiment in The Journal of Child & Family Studies, just by the introduction of meditation into a child’s regimen, “adolescents’ attention and behavior problems reduced, while their executive functioning improved” (Bögels 775). That’s not to say that advancements in medicine aren’t important, and that’s not to say that we should abandon them entirely and go sit cross-legged in a field instead. It does, however, have something to say about the power of the human mind, that we, as conscious beings, have a lot more say in our conditions—both mental and physical—than we’re taught to give ourselves credit for.

As far as what this practice might look like in a classroom, the possibilities are endless. It could begin as young as kindergarten, starting as a ten-minute naptime-like segment of the day, and by fifth or sixth grade, develop into a full-blown course with lectures and guided meditation practices assigned for homework. The classes could be taught by anyone from ex-monks to yogis, which would offer students the opportunity to see the world from countless different perspectives, and all aspects of meditation could be covered—everything from common techniques to the neuroscience that supports them.

If schools in America were to adopt meditation into the basic curriculum, the next generation might understand that happiness and personal growth aren’t dependent on your situation, your income, your job, or even your surroundings. Instead, they’d understand that these things are based on whether or not you’re willing to practice presence of mind. In a country that stresses personal advancement, it doesn’t make sense that the only skills we’re taught are skills that don’t necessarily assure us any happiness at all. We are conditioned to think that we have the freedom to pursue happiness, but that’s the problem—people are constantly trying to pursue what they already have access to. After all, if we can’t change the past, and we can’t predict the future, all we have to work with is this very moment.

Works Cited

Bigger, Better, Faster, More: Brain Doping. Films Media Group, 2011. Films On Demand. Web. 17 November 2012.

Bögels, Susan, et al. “The Effectiveness Of Mindfulness Training On Behavioral Problems And Attentional Functioning In Adolescents With ADHD.”Journal Of Child & Family Studies 21.5 (2012): 775-787. Education Research Complete. Web. 17 Nov. 2012.

Epstein, Mark, M.D. Going on Being. New York: Broadway, 2001. Print.

Happy. Dir. Belic Roko. Wadi Rum Productions, 2011. DVD.

Sykes, Kathy. Meditation. Films Media Group, 2008. Films On Demand. Web. 17 November 2012.

“Using Meditation to Heighten Students’ Awareness.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 49.14 (2002): 0-A8. ProQuest Education Journals; ProQuest Health Management; ProQuest Research Library. Web. 17 Nov. 2012.

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