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Mindfulness

What’s it all about and do our children really need lessons in it? Janita Clamp investigates.

I have seen mindfulness and it is mainly blue.

MindfulnessType ‘mindfulness’ into the Amazon book section and 21,000 titles come up (although by the time you read this it’ll probably be closer to 30,000). Almost every one has a blue cover, featuring trees, beaches, feathers, birds, clouds, daisies, butterflies and many, many pebbles. Although one or two mavericks have gone rogue with pale green or a dispiriting eco brown, publishers seem to have decreed that western civilisation’s latest cure-all comes in any colour so long as it’s somewhere between pale duck egg and turquoise.

The word ‘mindfulness’ is an attempt to translate the untranslatable Buddhist concept of ‘sati’ or ‘smriti’, a meditative state in which one is paying complete attention to the present moment. The version publishers and practitioners are selling to us (the frazzled and time poor) is a secular self-help tool dubbed ‘Buddhism-lite’ or ‘Mc Mindfulness’ by critics. A bit of ancient mysticism repackaged and flogged with claims that just ten minutes a day will make us less stressed, healthier and (ironically) more productive. And happy. A mindful mind is a happy mind. Especially if you’re a publisher.

Yes, stick ‘mindful’ in front of almost anything and see how it sells. Some books are a cynical attempt to cash in on not one, but two lifestyle trends – you can ‘declutter’ your mind with a mash-up of mindfulness and extreme tidying. Or why not lose weight mindfully? If this is based on the mindfulness exercise that involves eating one raisin very, very slowly then who knows, it might work.

Of course, quiet contemplation or even just spending a few minutes each day not looking at Facebook or Twitter are generally good things. But let’s think about what being in the moment means. It’s not a new idea; it’s not a lost art; it’s what happens when we are totally absorbed in whatever floats our boat. For some it’s singing, playing an instrument or just listening to music. For others it’s cycling, riding, walking, gardening. Reading even. These are things that we make time to do because they are interesting and enjoyable. In short, for most of us, they are hobbies. We don’t need books telling us how to cycle, garden or bake mindfully (and believe me there’s a whole series that does just this) because these activities are intrinsically mindful. Is ten minutes of mindfulness really better for us than ten minutes out in the fresh air or lost in a Chopin prelude?

And it now seems that mindfulness is being squeezed in to your child’s already full-to-bursting curriculum. Wellington College famously introduced mindfulness sessions for all its students a few years ago and claims it reduces stress, especially around exam times. Properly conducted by practitioners who know what they are doing, then it probably is beneficial. Who wouldn’t feel better for a short period of silence and deep breathing; the chance to press pause in the middle of a busy, competitive environment? But as mindfulness trickles down through the education system the quality of delivery may dilute.

Indeed, looking at some of the mindfulness lesson plans available, it seems most involve some deep breathing followed by a lot of colouring in. The resources include sheets of images that can be photocopied - you guessed it, feathers, trees, butterflies, birds and flowers. Or how about a mindful poem (from Teaching mindfulness in schools):

Give your life complete attention, whatever you are doing, for as long as you can. Eating, working, playing, shopping, having fun. There is nothing else anyway.

It’s hard not to ask what kind of message is this - some kind of new age nihilism with a bit of capitalism thrown in for good measure? There are even mindfulness exercises for parents to do with their teenage children. Best of luck with that.

As adults, we can choose whether or not to buy into mindfulness. Many people vouch for its life-changing effects, while for others it may be a short term fad – like quinoa or juicing. But is it necessary for children? Young children are brilliant at living in the moment – it’s what they do naturally. They just don’t tend to do it sitting quietly or colouring in badly drawn feathers.

In any case, it looks as though mindfulness is about to become SO last year. Goodbye cold, blue mindfulness and a warm welcome to snuggly ‘hygge’ - the Danes’ very own unpronounceable word for simple things that make you feel nice. Like mindfulness, hygge promises us calm and happiness; unlike mindfulness this state can be achieved by wine, chocolate and having a good laugh with your friends and is thus unlikely ever to feature in a lesson plan. And, nowhere in the rules of hygge (and yes, it may be all cosy but there are rules, which is why you need to buy a book) does it say you have to spend ten minutes eating one raisin.

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