Sunday, November 18, 2018

Three Challenging Questions about the Benefits of Mindfulness

Photo by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash

by Catharine Hannay

When I started the Mindful Teachers website six years ago, I felt passionate about sharing the benefits of mindfulness with as many teachers as possible. Nowadays, I'm more concerned about not contributing to the over-enthusiasm that's led to, for example, 
"teachers who did not have a personal mindfulness practice being asked to deliver MBA’s [mindfulness-based approaches] by their school principals." 
Effective Mindfulness-Based Approaches, for Students and Teachers, interview with Keith Horan

I've been working on updating the Benefits of Mindfulness page, and I confess that I've been finding it quite challenging. I'm a firm believer in the benefits of a sincere, long-term practice, but I'm frustrated by the available research and the ways it's typically reported. 

In a critique of the current standards of research, Van Dam et al outline some of the major concerns: 
  • "The term mindfulness has a plethora of meanings."
  • "Much popular media fails to accurately represent scientific examination of mindfulness, making rather exaggerated claims about the potential benefits of mindfulness practices."
  • "Much more research will be needed before we know for what mental and physical disorders, in which individuals, mindfulness-based interventions are definitely helpful."
Mind the Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research on Mindfulness and Meditation

I'd like to share some of my thoughts on these issues, in the hopes that it will contribute to the ongoing conversation about we do and don't know about the benefits of mindfulness. 

First of All, What Do We Actually Mean by  'Mindfulness'?

One of the most popular definitions of mindfulness is "paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally." 

In fact, this definition has become so widespread that I once saw it attributed to "Dr. Jon-Kabat Zinn, the inventor of mindfulness." (I'm trying to come up with an adjective that conveys feeling simultaneously dismayed and amused. Dis-mused, perhaps?) 

For the record, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn has never claimed to have 'invented' mindfulness, but he is one of the key figures in bringing a secular form of mindfulness meditation to a western audience. His pioneering Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program in 1979 has grown into the influential Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society.

But as popular as his definition of mindfulness may be, 
"Some people have refrained from accepting Kabat-Zinn's definition of mindfulness, or else have interpreted it in different, sometimes conflicting ways. Kabat-Zinn (2011) himself has acknowledged that the term represents (to him) a much broader scope of concepts and practices than what his earlier (1990) definition might suggest."
Van Dam et al, "Mind the Hype" 

I'm fascinated by the different ways of understanding and explaining mindfulness, and I try to include as broad a range of perspectives as possible. (See, for example, What Is Mindfulness? and Metaphors for Mindfulness and Meditation.)

This has gotten me into trouble a couple of times. 

Sunday, November 11, 2018

How Growth Mindset Complements Mindfulness (interview)

Mary Cay Ricci has worked as an elementary and middle school teacher, instructional specialist and central office administrator. She is the New York Times Best Selling Education author of Mindsets in the Classroom: Building a Growth Mindset Learning Community. Her other books include Nothing You Can’t Do: The Secret Power of Growth Mindsets (for kids 8-13), Ready-to-Use Resources for Mindsets in the Classroom, Mindsets for Parents, and Create a Growth Mindset School (for administrators).   

Mary Cay is available for speaking engagement in the US and Canada. You can follow her on Twitter @MaryCayR

In your opinion, how can growth mindset complement mindfulness?
Mindfulness and growth mindset both encompass an awareness of our thinking. 

One of the most important tenets of growth mindset is the knowledge that we all make mistakes and we can all learn from them.   

Being at peace with failure and mistakes and small bumps in the road complements mindfulness. 

I’ve heard of a few situations where well-intentioned teachers misunderstood growth mindset and kept pushing kids beyond the point they could really handle. 

Do you have any guidelines for when it is or isn’t advisable to challenge kids?

It is always good to challenge kids IF they have been given the tools they need to approach the challenge and embrace the struggle.  I have found that one of the biggest “missing pieces” when teaching about growth mindset and encouraging kids to embrace difficult tasks, is to help students develop a menu of go-to strategies that they can use when they are stuck or are struggling. 

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Self-Compassion and Growth Mindset: Don't Be Afraid of Mistakes

Photo by Felix Koutchinski on Unsplash

The following post is adapted from Nothing You Can't Do! The Secret Power of Growth Mindsets by Mary Cay Ricci, and is published here with permission from Prufrock Press.

Remember that many things we use every day of our lives were invented because a mistake was made or another invention failed. 
Post-It Notes. Chemist Spencer Silver was actually trying to invent a mega-strong glue, but he made a mistake and invented a super-weak one instead. Thus, post-it notes were born! 
Popsicles. In 1905, Frank Epperson mixed up a fruit-flavored drink and accidentally left it outside on a cold night, with the stirring stick still left in the cup. In the morning, the drink had frozen around the stick. He popped it out of the cup and licked it — a popsicle!
Can you think of other inventions that were originally mistakes? (How about chocolate chip cookies and potato chips?)

Sunday, October 28, 2018

How We Can Support Every Student's Gifts and Challenges (interview)

Christine Fonseca is a critically-acclaimed author of fiction and nonfiction for adults and children. 

In Letting Go: A Girl’s Guide to Breaking Free of Stress and Anxiety, she helps young women reach their full potential through mindfulness, self-awareness, and self-compassion. 

One of your areas of expertise is working with gifted kids. In an earlier interview, Danielle Ancin of The Niroga Institute mentioned that 
“although many funding agencies use the term ‘at risk,’ I have learned that the label itself can be hurtful and may get in the way of us seeing each individual’s strengths, needs, challenges, and goals.” 
Do you have any similar concerns about kids who are/aren’t labeled as ‘gifted’?

I have mixed feelings over labeling students in general, including with the gifted label. Although the “gifted” label is problematic in general – there is a bit of an elitist tone and a great deal of mythology around the label – the label does alert others to the idea that this particular group of humans is someone different from the “norm,” which is true. Gifted individuals have unique thinking, personalities and emotional development when compared to others. 

That said, identifying giftedness is highly inconsistent in the US and often relies on performance data – something highly subject to the negative impacts of poverty, trauma and other factors. We significantly under-identify children of color or children who also have learning difficulties and other needs when ascribing the giftedness label. For those reasons, the label (and the services sometimes attached to the label) serves to further marginalize some groups of children. 

None of this is okay. Much work needs to be done regarding understanding giftedness and what supports gifted children need in order to access their potential.  

But this conversation goes deeper than the labels. Really it is about changing how we work with children in general. 

Sunday, October 21, 2018

7 Ways Our Thoughts Deceive Us

Photo by Kyle Broad on Unsplash

The following post is adapted from Letting Go: A Girl's Guide to Breaking Free of Stress and Anxiety by Christine Fonsecaand is published here with permission from Prufrock Press.

Our brains work tirelessly to keep us safe. But it isn't just things out in the world that our brains protect us from, they protect us from our inner monsters as well. And these are often perceived as more threatening than anything outside the body.

The brain doesn't base decisions on Truth with a capital "T," but rather on our perception of reality at the moment. This perception is heavily influenced by our internal monsters.

How does our brain lie to us? It uses what I like to refer to as "cons," specific thoughts that lead our conscious mind to misperceptions and cognitive errors. There are seven cons that our brain regularly utilizes to convince us of the 'truth' of a particular cognition error.

Here's a look at the specific cons our brain uses to maintain our stress and anxiety. The chart below will help you to understand the different types of cons and how they influence your own thoughts.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Effective Mindfulness-Based Approaches, for Students and Teachers (interview)

Keith Horan is a school teacher and qualified meditation teacher with an MSc in Mindfulness-Based Approaches from the Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice at Bangor University, Wales. He offers day-long workshops and 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) courses in Kinvara, County Galway, Ireland, and online guided meditations at

One of the key themes here at is self-care for educators and other helping professionals. In your opinion, what’s the connection between mindfulness and self-care, and why are they so important for teachers?

It is great to see the idea of self-care coming into the teaching profession.  Teachers are beginning to understand that caring for themselves is necessary if they are to care for their students.

So, the importance of self-care is becoming an accepted idea.  The challenge for teachers though is to turn this idea into a practice.  Can teachers remember to practice self-care when they need it most?  Or, as I often see, does self-care fall down the list of priorities once the pressure comes on?  

Sunday, October 7, 2018

How Christians and Buddhists Can Teach Each Other About Mindfulness

by Catharine Hannay

I recently saw the sarcastic comment, 
“If Christians don’t want to meditate because they think it’s Buddhist, doesn't tea ceremony mean they have to stop drinking tea?”
That really bothered me for a few different reasons. 

First of all, it's totally unacceptable to ridicule anyone's religious beliefs. That should be the bare minimum of tolerance. 

Secondly, I'm tired of facile comparisons based on a superficial understanding of Buddhist theology, as well as ignorance of the actual concerns many Christians have about what is taught in mindfulness classes

The third reason this bugged me is that I have never seen a comment like: 
Maybe Buddhists should stop using mindfulness bells because of all the handbell choirs at Christian churches.
Why is there such a persistent assumption that mindfulness teachers are all Buddhist? In fact, many Buddhists are bothered by the way traditional teachings have been secularized and taken out of context. And there are many Christian mindfulness teachers, as well as teachers who happen to be Christian but are reluctant to publicly discuss their beliefs.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Metaphors for Mindfulness and Meditation

Photo by Inge WallumrĂžd from Pexels 

by Catharine Hannay

What is the nature of mind and what happens when we meditate and/or practice mindfulness? Here's a sampling of metaphors, analogies, and parables from  a variety of traditions. 

Awareness of Thoughts

Huston Smith expands on the traditional concept of ‘monkey mind’:
“The mind is like a drunken crazed monkey with St. Vitus’ Dance who has just been stung by a wasp. Those who have seriously tried to meditate will not find this metaphor extreme. 
I tell my hand to rise and it obeys. I tell my mind to be still and it mocks my command.” 

In The Meditative Mind, Daniel Goleman quotes Indian philosopher Krishnamurti's advice to children:
You have to watch, as you watch a lizard going by, walking across the wall, seeing all its four feet, how it sticks to the wall, you have to watch it, and as you watch, you see all the movements, the delicacy of its movements. 
So in the same way, watch your thinking, do not correct it, do not suppress it—do not say it is too hard—just watch it, now, this morning.” 

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Mindful Cell Phone Use, for Students and Teachers

The following is a guest post by Ira Rabois, author of Compassionate Critical Thinking.

How difficult is it nowadays to engage students in a deep discussion? Or if you’re a parent, how difficult is it to engage the whole family in a talk?

There has been much debate about the role cell phones and other digital media has played in making face-to-face in-school discussions more difficult in the last few years.

A colleague recently told me about the problems with phone use at her school. Some students even use their phones to order food to be delivered to the classroom!

When I asked why the teachers put up with it, she said they felt like they couldn’t do anything. Constant cell phone use is too engrained in the school (and national) culture. Kids do everything on their phones, and parents add to the problem by wanting 24/7 access to their children.

I was as frightened by this situation as my colleague was. How can anyone learn well, and engage with others in meaningful discussions, when their attention is constantly tuned to the expectation of a text?

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Inspiring Videos of Service to Humanity

by Catharine Hannay

This video playlist focuses on individuals who are helping alleviate severe problems in the world, in some cases risking their lives to do so. 

As always, please watch the full video before sharing it with your class, and use your own best judgment about what's appropriate for your particular context. (I'd consider most of these appropriate for adults or mature teens. If you teach kids, you may prefer last week's collection of Inspiring Videos of Young People Serving the World.) 

In a remote Arctic village facing a youth suicide crisis, Maggie MacDonnell teaches her students resilience and self-belief through projects that contribute to the community in meaningful ways.