Sunday, November 13, 2011

Minding the Indigenous Mind: How the practice of mindfulness can contribute to Indigenous Education

        Mindful Greetings Friends and Relatives,
The Buddha once said, “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.” In this column I want to advocate for the use of mindfulness practices in schools that serve and educate Indigenous youth. I believe that mindfulness is an activity that teachers, administrators, school boards, parents, and students should regularly engage in; it can be easily incorporated into the health and wellness curriculum of the school. Mindfulness is a practice that enables one to improve their thinking and to train their mind and attention to attain greater levels of awareness, stability, concentration, and calm. In this column I will define mindfulness, its significance, and its linkages to neuroscience and Indigenous cultural traditions.
An Exercise in Mindfulness
            Before launching into the reasons why mindfulness is appropriate in schools that education Native youth, I want readers to experience for themselves a simple breath counting exercise that is commonly used in mindfulness practice. It is an exercise that helps establish a foundation for deeper attention and awareness.  If you start to fall asleep or find it difficult to concentrate due to racing thoughts, twinges of anxiety or restlessness, pleasant or unpleasant memories, and body aches and pains during this exercise, just remember that this is normal when you are beginning to learn how to “tame” your mind. However, as you gently press yourself into a consistent routine of practice, you will find yourself entering into deeper and more sustained states of awareness, calm, and well being. The distractions in your life will gradually become quieter and less troublesome.   

  1. To begin with find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed.

  1. Get into a comfortable position sitting in chair or cross-legged on the floor. If you choose the floor you can sit on a pillow or a cushion to help support you and to reduce the strain on your knees. As you get into your sitting position make sure that you keep your back straight but relaxed and your neck aligned with your spine. Your head should be held as if you are balancing a ball on top. If you choose to sit in a chair make sure that both feet are resting flat on the floor.

  1. Relax your shoulders and rest your hands, palms down, on the top of your legs if you’re sitting in a chair. If you are on the floor rest your hands on your lap, knuckle side down. One hand can rest inside the other, with palms facing upward, fingers slightly and gently curled up, and thumbs lightly touching. Take a deep breath and settle into a relaxed, balanced position that feels grounded and calm.

  1. Close your eyes and bring your attention to your breathing. Settle into your breath but don’t force it. Just allow it be as natural as possible. Allow yourself to experience what this natural, relaxed breathing feels like for a bit.

  1. When you are ready begin counting silently to yourself: Count 1 on your first in-breath, 2 on the out-breath, 3 on the in-breath, and 4 on the out-breath. Repeat this pattern and continue counting for the next five minutes.  

  1. If any thoughts come up that distract you away from your counting. Observe their content and how they make you feel, but do not get attached to them or judge them. Just allow them to be and as soon as you remember return to counting your breaths. It’s important not to get frustrated or judge yourself when you get distracted. Just stay relaxed and continue to return to your breathing and counting, remembering that it is your anchor.

  1. When you are ready gently open your eyes, continue to let your breathing be relaxed and natural. Take a deep, cleansing breath and observe how you feel and what your surroundings look like. Write down what this experience was like. Was it pleasant, difficult, or relaxing? How did it make you feel? If you are an educator or parent, after you try it, you might help your students or child(ren) practice this exercise.
 What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness refers to being deeply aware of what is happening from moment to moment outside and inside us, without judging or attaching to the content, feelings, and emotions that arise. It refers to living deeply and richly in the present moment and not responding to life in a distracted and mechanical manner. For instance, when a student learns how to mindfully count his or her breaths, she or he will develop a greater awareness of his or her breathing. She or he will notice if the breaths that are taken are long, relaxed, and deep or short, rushed, and shallow. With this awareness she or he can make adjustments to  so that their breathing more tranquil and efficient.  After some time the student and teacher will notice that the deeper calm, awareness, and ability to concentrate that is acquired can be carried over to other activities in and out of school.
The Significance of Mindfulness
Mindfulness is one of the fasting growing approaches in the helping and healing professions. In a book entitled “The Clinical Handbook of Mindfulness,” (2008, edited by Fabrizio Didonna) several of the contributors to this text share how mindfulness approaches are becoming well-known in the field of psychology due to growing body of evidence that shows the positive effects these interventions have when treating a number of behavioral and psychological conditions. In the book, “Mindfulness-based Treatment Approaches,” (2005, edited by Ruth A. Baer) mindfulness-based treatment approaches are credited with successfully treating anxiety, depressive relapse, eating disorders, psychosis, and borderline personality disorder. In a paper entitled, “The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being,” (2003, written by Kirk Warren Brown and Richard M. Ryan), mindfulness is credited with improved self-regulated behavior, positive emotional states, and declines in mood disturbance and stress.
A growing number of K-12 schools in the U.S., with students from many different ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds are using mindfulness practices to improve academic performance and deal with student stress and behavior. For instance, The Garrison Institute, an organization dedicated to transformation of society through contemplative methods, compiled a major report in 2005 on the use of mindfulness in grades K-12. Several schools participated in this study and reported that students who learned mindfulness practices developed a number of noble qualities: emotional balance and intelligence, peacefulness, well being, compassion, gratitude, empathy, confidence, a sense of safety, forgiveness, and love.  Teachers also benefited: reduced stress, more alertness and patience, and less reactivity.
Linking Mindfulness Practices with Neuroscience
 The value of mindfulness practices such as meditation is supported by a wealth of scientific findings. One important discovery linking mindfulness and the brain is neuroplasticity, which refers to our brain’s ability to change its neurons and reorganize its networks and functions due to new experiences. When a student learns something his or her brain forms new connections between brain cells. As she or he practices and memorizes what was learned, networks become stronger, enabling the person to become more accomplished at whatever task has been undertaken.
When a student practices mindfulness a number of important circuits in the brain are positively affected. For instance, the Amygdala, a region in the brain that is associated with fear, anxiety, and aggression, quiets down and the left side of the prefrontal cortex of the brain, an area located approximately behind and above the left eyebrow, is activated. Research has shown that this area is associated with happiness, well being, and an enhanced immune response.
 In the book, “How God Changes Your Brain,” (2009) neuroscientists Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman state that “As neural functioning begins to change, different circuits become activated, while others become inactivated. New dendrites are formed, new synaptic connections are made, and the brain becomes more sensitive to subtle realms of experience.” Newberg and Waldman report that the research has consistently established that mindfulness practices such as meditation, positive thinking, and visualization change the structure and function of our brains and improve our health, optimism, and performance. In one study, renowned neuroscientist Richard Davidson and colleagues (2007) concluded that, “When the framework of neuroplasticity is applied to meditation, we suggest that the mental training of meditation is fundamentally no different than other forms of skill acquisition that can induce plastic changes in the brain.”

The Linkage between Mindfulness and
 Indigenous Cultural Traditions
Although many people associate mindfulness and meditation with eastern spiritual traditions, almost all human cultures have engaged in practices that include the use of deep, focused thought, listening, and attention. This is particularly true of Indigenous Peoples throughout the world. When spiritual leaders taught sacred rituals to the uninitiated members of the tribe (mainly the youth), it was required that the novice engage in concentrated, uninterrupted attention to what was being presented, its meanings, and how it was connected to the traditions of the people. Among some tribes, before youth would be introduced to certain sacred practices they might be required to undergo a purification process where they would be spiritually cleansed so that their minds and hearts would be in a good place (without negative thoughts or feelings). Children were reminded that bad thoughts and lack of focus would taint their experience and their ability to learn. 
            When young people were passing into adulthood many would be guided into the formal process of “vision-seeking” to understand their purpose in life and how their actions would contribute to the well-being of the tribe. The preparation for vision-seeking was long, intense, and challenging. It required deep mindfulness and long periods of meditation, which focused on what was being sought (a vision, special healing powers, or insights). It also required one to focus on the process: an uninterrupted, steady focus and awareness of the special prayers and songs that were to be used, and an interpersonal humility and maintenance of pure, compassionate thoughts. 
In closing, many Indigenous youth are not given the opportunity, nor are they pressed, to engage in formal mindfulness practices to improve their well being. While it may not be appropriate for school personnel to direct students in cultural mindfulness practices, they can implement mindfulness into the school setting. Developing mindfulness is not easy but it is worth doing since it is culturally appropriate, easy to implement, low cost, and it works. Mindfulness involves systematic training and practice and is a process that takes place over time. However, dramatic, positive changes can occur when one gently and consistently practices mindfulness. It is a journey that is well worth it for native students and those that teach them; for when they are invited to enter into states of deep awareness and concentration their worlds, experiences, and lives become much richer, less fearful and angry, more vivid, creative, peaceful, and healed. Raising the educational success and well being of Indigenous students is just one mindful breath away.

Michael Yellow Bird, MSW, Ph.D., is an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes and a professor and the director of graduate education  in the Department of Social Work at Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA. His teaching, writing, research, and community work focuses on social work with Indigenous Peoples, neurodecolonization, neuroscience and social work, and employing mainstream and traditional Indigenous mindfulness practices in tribal communities to promote health and well being. He leads a regular morning mindfulness practice for staff, students, and faculty in his department. He can be reached by email at: 

No comments: