by Tan Cheen Chong
Gratification comes quickly in today’s fast-paced and result-oriented environment. Want to know what a mosquito laying her eggs looks like? You can find many videos on YouTube in seconds. Queuing to buy lunch and don’t know anyone else in the line? Nod in agreement if you whip out your smartphone to launch Instagram or 9GAG. Nothing interesting on television? My own kids prefer to watch videos on their laptops. Our brains have been conditioned for stimulation—we are addicted to this modern instant-on lifestyle.
Today, access to knowledge is as easy as starting up an application on your smartphone. However, with this convenience comes a wealth of distractions, which compete for our attention and motivation to learn. We may have switched on the computer to complete a report, only to find ourselves checking email, watching funny cat videos, or reading a totally unrelated blog.
Distractions can take a significant toll on your work or studies. Psychological studies (Rogers & Monsell, 1995) show that multi-taskers take 50percent longer to complete a task and make 50percent more errors. Researchers (Mark, 2013) have also found that it takes an average of 25 minutes (or more) to resume an interrupted task. Even more shockingly, we apparently now have a shorter attention span than a goldfish, according to a 2015 Microsoft study cited in TIME magazine— a goldfish can concentrate for up to nine seconds while we lose focus after a mere eight seconds.
Hence, it comes as no surprise that the typical modern-day student is highly strung. They have to attend classes, complete homework and assignments, and participate in co-curricular activities and volunteer opportunities. They have to keep up with their parents’ expectations, perceived or otherwise. They also participate in multiple online chat groups or games, each with a different agenda. Some have online identities they are trying to cultivate—a private one, or one for all to see. They have varied interests that can be fulfilled and nurtured through communities and resources on the Internet.
But what lies beneath this veneer of busyness? These multiple sources of stimulation and their accompanying emotions can become overwhelming. A 2007 Institute of Mental Health study reported that 12.5 per cent of healthy primary school children show signs of emotional and behavioural problems (e.g. being withdrawn, displaying delinquent behaviour, being anxious and being depressed). Meanwhile, teachers I have talked to reveal that they now have more layers of initiatives to implement and key performance indicators to keep track of, especially as compared to 20 to 30 years ago. Sandwiched between a restless student body and an increasingly involved parent community, it’s no wonder teachers feel pressured to cope on all fronts.
Here’s where mindfulness can help. But first, you must be wondering: ‘What is ‘mindfulness’?’ This newfangled word has started appearing in mainstream publications like TIME magazine and The Straits Times, usually in articles on performance and wellness. ‘Mindful leadership’, ‘mindful parenting’ and ‘mindfulness in education.’ What exactly do these mean? Is this another self-help fad? How does being more mindful improve the quality of education, or one’s life for that matter?
My family and friends find it easier to understand mindfulness when I bring up its opposite—’mindlessness’. When we’re mindless, we do things without thinking; you can that say we act almost instinctively, or on autopilot. For example, we may be driving to work with a companion in peak hour traffic, but we’re mentally preoccupied with planning the day’s calendar. We can be having a shower but in our minds we’re replaying snippets of dialogue from our last conversation.
Mindfulness is a state of mind, not an action. This awareness is a natural human ability. However, in our increasingly complex and high-speed surroundings, the brain tends to generalise information to help us cope with over-stimulation. We develop habits and form stereotypes, preferences and routines. Before long, most decisions in our waking hours have been reduced to SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) that we follow unquestionably, since they have proven to keep us out of danger and trouble. However, we start to lose our engagement with life itself. We stop seeing each circumstance on its own merits and uniqueness. We stop to pause and smell the roses.
To be mindful is to be aware of what is going on in front of us and of the opportunities for us to engage or act. In alternative, mindful versions of the earlier examples, we can choose to ask our companion how he or she is doing, or appreciate the feeling of the jet of hot water against our skin and remember to relax. Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, who created and introduced Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction therapy in a hospital setting back in 1979, defines mindfulness as ‘paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.’
That programme and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy are now being offered in medical settings to help patients cope with mental issues such as depression and chronic unhappiness. Companies like Google, Nike and Procter& Gamble are also offering mindfulness programmes to their employees to help them build resilient and positive mind-sets.
Mindfulness has its roots in contemplative traditions. Religions like Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism encourage followers to take time to pause and reflect. Although mindfulness is secular, it can be used in similar ways to address the challenges we face in modern society. Brain science can now explain why this kind of practice benefits us—regular mindfulness training can strengthen your pre-frontal cortex, which is located right behind your forehead. This is the CEO of your brain, the decision-maker, planner and judge. Practising mindfulness can regulate control of your brain’s executive functions, instead of letting instinct and emotions automatically take over. Practising mindfulness regularly is like doing repetitive bicep curls; you build a stronger brain ‘muscle’ that you can flex when weighty issues come up. I used to suffer from painful, sometimes immobilising, arthritic pains caused by food allergies. At the insistence of a doctor, I attended a ten-day meditation course where I learnt to be aware of and accept whatever is happening in my body—an itch or joint pain, for example. The pain unexpectedly disappeared soon after. Another participant, a retired police officer suffering from high blood pressure, saw his reading drop from 170 to 130 after his first ten-day retreat.
As a certified Mindful Schools instructor, I have been blessed with the opportunity to teach it to people from numerous professional backgrounds, from marketers to a Member of Parliament, bankers, business owners, nurses. I have also taught youths from a range of backgrounds— from schools like RI to UPStars, a community initiative providing free tuition to underserved families in the Ghim Moh neighbourhood.
In the classroom, mindfulness training can help students concentrate better on their schoolwork and lessons, and handle their emotions in a healthier way.
Imagine being asked to pay attention in class. Does that simply require your aural and visual faculties? What if your mind is not present at all? Are you instead worrying about something else outside the classroom? Such mental diversions can also happen while you are studying and doing your homework. Add that to the multitude of apps like Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, 9GAG, Twitter, and games offering a welcome amusement from piles of assignments, and you will find yourself taking many life-draining hours to tackle what should have taken only 30-40 productive minutes to complete.
Teenagers are also susceptible to feeling anxious, sensitive or upset. Dealing with the emotions that come with puberty can be difficult, but by being aware of them, a mentally fit student can keep their feelings in check and choose an appropriate response. Take, for instance, a boy who was not selected to be the captain of his sports team. Instead of mulling over his frustration (which can manifest as anger or withdrawal), he can recognise that he is upset, work through the emotions, and then positively figure out the steps he has to take in order to improve his chances when future opportunities come by.
Teachers are not impervious to feeling down either—they can be emotionally affected by circumstances beyond the classroom, and a packed day of instruction can take its physical and mental toll. Some teachers may start to feel like they are on a never-ending hamster wheel teetering on despair. Moreover, a teacher’s frame of mind and mood can influence the atmosphere of their class. And just as a student can daydream during lessons, teachers can be mentally distracted, too.
Matthew, a former RI classmate who is now a secondary school teacher, shared that he is painfully aware that his words and actions can affect the young adults he guides. For almost 20 years, he has had to make decisions that could either spur on or discourage his students. When he replies a question, comments on his students’ behaviour or has conversations with their parents, he feels the weight of responsibility and constantly questions if he is making the right choices and providing authentic guidance.
These classroom dynamics are not lost on the Ministry of Education. Back in 2014, they invited Professor Dennis Shirley, author of The Mindful Teacher, to speak with Singapore educators. During his talk, Professor Shirley emphasised the need to find new ways to help younger generations enjoy their learning journey while being mindful of modern societal issues, especially those exacerbated by technology. Through this awareness, both students and teachers can learn to be more open-minded when engaging with each other.
In his book, Professor Shirley shared that ‘an excessive concern with alignment [of standards, frameworks and initiatives] can rob teachers of opportunities to adjust their instruction to teach students at their actual level of understanding…’ Knowing that the learning process is not just ‘I speak, you listen’, we can forge a shared partnership of supportive learning and collaborative reflection that feels more credible and meaningful.
Teachers who are feeling stressed can practise simple mindfulness techniques. Take a pause or a breath, and practise some self-love or gratitude. Take time for a mental reset just before the start each class, or at the beginning of a new school day. My friend Matthew tries to meditate for 15 minutes every day, even on weekends. ‘Mindfulness gives me clarity and presence—I find the space to gather my thoughts, assess the situation and respond appropriately in school,’ he shares.
I taught a mindfulness class at RI for a term in 2015. Rafflesians have, by and large, performance-driven personalities—they set high standards for themselves and do their best in whatever they commit themselves to do. They are used to putting in effort to move forward and realise the rewards. So when I asked them to pause amidst a hectic week of lessons and CCA activities, most of them were shocked. The concept of concentrating hard in doing nothing was incomprehensible. In the first two lessons, most of the younger students were either fidgety or dozing off. That told me that they either had excess energy to burn or were not getting enough sleep.
However, once they got into the rhythm of the activities being taught, more than half of the class learnt to focus their minds on their breath anchor—an object of focus—for an extended period of time without appearing restless. One of the most disciplined students, whom I was told has ADHD, found that simple and accessible mind tools can help to calm his highly active thoughts for 10-15 minutes.
What was even more encouraging was the change in their approach to stress. Through the students’ evaluations, I found that they felt less negative and stressed than before. They also had more confidence in tackling their personal crises, and felt a more authentic connection with themselves and their surroundings. Many began to see the world and their situations in a different, brighter light.
As I meet students of all ages, I’m continually heartened and filled with gratitude when they tell me that they have learnt something useful. A 12-year-old child recently told me about how mindfulness has helped her manage her feelings and focus in class. ‘I didn’t know that peace could be attained within 3 minutes,’ she said happily.
Cheen (RI, 87; RJC, 89) is a US Mindful Schools-certified teacher. He has worked in the everchanging world of business technology since 1993. So he knows a thing or two (or two dozen) about stress in the get-it-done-yesterday, results-oriented MNC world, plus its effect on health & family life. As a beneficiary of regular mindfulness practice, he advocates a genuine awareness of thoughts & emotions for today’s and tomorrow’s corporate warriors.