What if there was something schools could do that was scientifically shown to promote emotional resilience, physical health and academic performance? But what if only a few schools had started to incorporate it into their curriculum?
As a physician-in-training, I’m passionate about finding ways to enhance health and create a sense of overall vibrancy and well-being. (Waiting until people are ill to treat disease seems subpar.) So, I often ask: What is the best way to promote physical and mental health, so that people became ill far less often (or at least substantially later in life)?
And, what if there were a way to incorporate such a tool into our children’s education, so that every child could establish the habits of a healthy, happy life?
There is one tool that does everything above, and — based on scientific evidence — we can predict what would happen. Students would perform better on exams and improve their ability to focus. Their brain structure would change in ways that promote emotional regulation, empathy and positive mood. Stress hormones would decrease, the immune system would grow stronger, and compassion would increase. In fact, even gene expression could change to decrease inflammation, which, in turn, would help reduce risk of heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and autoimmune diseases (in ways that the next generation can inherit!)
Now, what if this intervention were extremely cost-effective — even free long-term — and, unlike medications, had no side effects? (In fact, this very intervention can help some children maintain high function without medications.) Wouldn’t we want all children to have access to this tool?
Wonderful organizations like MindUP, the Holistic Life Foundation, the Mindful Mentors and many more are sharing this very intervention — mindful awareness education — with kids in such disparate settings as private schools in Manhattan, public schools in inner-city Baltimore, and a schools, prisons and hospitals from California to Ohio, China to Uganda. Simple practices such as bringing awareness to the body and focusing attention on the breath have been shown to create all of the positive effects mentioned above. Incredibly, the same, simple, secular curriculum has proven effective across all these settings. An increasing array of academic institutions (including Harvard, Johns Hopkins, UCLA, and more) apply scientific rigor to study the effects of programs promoting mindful awareness, and the results are consistently positive.
In addition to the benefits mentioned above, mindful awareness has been shown to help students feel more accepted by peers, increase optimism, and act more kindly towards others. These are qualities I certainly wish for all children.
Inspired by these findings, as well as my own experience, I recently joined with several colleagues to teach mindful awareness and breathing exercises to incoming medical students at an optional pre-orientation retreat. Pre- and post-surveys demonstrated this retreat helped boost compassion, self-compassion, stress management, and present-moment awareness. Other research has shown that mindful awareness boosts compassion and decreases burnout among health care workers. Such benefits seem equally important among students and educators.
Imagine a world where all children learned these basic practices to help balance/soothe their nervous system — so they were less likely to make rash decisions under stressful conditions. Learned breathing exercises to calm and focus their minds, which would help boost their recall of critical details on exams. Practiced tools that helped them foster compassion, increase the likelihood of kind, compassionate action, and even alter their genetic and hormonal expression toward health. I believe these children would be prepared to not only lead happier, healthier lives, but they would also be poised to treat others more kindly and make a greater contribution to society. Some of my heroes seem to agree:
“If we taught all 8-year-olds to meditate, we would eliminate all violence from the world within one generation.” — His Holiness, the Dalai Lama
If science seems to support the Dalai Lama’s statement, why not try? As a result, I’m completing a scholarly year and helping produce a documentary film, Quiet Revolution, about the potential of mindful awareness to promote physical and emotional health, with a focus on the Holistic Life Foundation’s work in inner-city Baltimore. Students in this community (the setting of HBO’s The Wire) face some of the greatest challenges we can imagine for youth, but after learning mindful awareness, many are able transcend their circumstances. In a neighborhood where many young people tragically end up in jail or dead, the first generation of Holistic Life Foundation students are now graduating from universities like Emory, and returning to mentor the younger students. If it can work in this community, perhaps it can work anywhere.
The film and social media campaign will couple these students’ transformational stories with interviews of neuroscientists, physicians, and thought leaders who will share the scientific data behind how and why these tools work. So far, these include Congressman Tim Ryan, Dr. Oz, Dan Goleman (author of Emotional Intelligence), Dr. Dan Siegel (Mindsight), contemplative neuroscientist Richie Davidson, and more. Footage from this project will be aired on ABC’s Nightline.
Our dream is to share the incredible potential of mindful awareness practices with everyone, connect people with the tools to start their own mindfulness practice, and then share these techniques with their schools and communities. By joining forces, we can create a happier, healthier, and more peaceful world. I hope you’ll join the Quiet Revolution.