By Graeme Nixon
Coronavirus has brought with it anxiety, stress, fear, suffering and bereavement. It has also brought many to reflection, new perspectives, altruism and common humanity. All of us are in a moment of obvious transition. The students and young people of this moment are entering a time of huge uncertainty about how their education will proceed. Many are living alone, isolated from families and friends, in some cases distant from their homeland. For many of our students, beyond the remaining few course assignments, they are looking down the barrel of a long summer with little prospect of work or holiday.
For the last 6 weeks I, and my colleague Ingrid Stanyer, have been offering drop in mindfulness sessions for student teachers at the University of Aberdeen. I wanted to share how these have been going and what benefits may result, with particular focus on the claim that we can, through focus on moments of gratitude, mitigate some of the less positive aspects of the current situation.
Mindfulness is deliberately setting aside time to observe our internal sensations, thoughts, and associations without preference, bringing an attitude of kindness and non-judgement to experience. Though foundational to wisdom traditions (theistic or otherwise) it is increasingly deployed in largely secular western societies initially as a means of dealing with stress and depressive rumination, but which now has applications in multiple fields such as creativity, decision making, learning, sport and leadership (to name but a few). During mindfulness practices the principle aim is to simply notice where the mind goes, and gently escort it to an anchoring support. These anchors can be breath, sound, the body or movement. The theory is simple, we practice mindfulness to learn ways of being more responsive and less reactive, no longer being hi-jacked by habitual patterns, no longer quite so subject to the attentional arms race out with and within our minds. If we take this technique of simple discernment and attitude of kind, curious beginner’s mind beyond the practice we may be building resilience to our own patterning, and creating a space between our thoughts and ourselves, a space for novelty perhaps. We become aware of the way thoughts become solidified as thinking, the moment of buy in or hi-jack becomes apparent, and in this noticing may I rather grandiosely suggest, we become more free.
Beyond such alleged metaphysical pay-offs there are related aims within many mindfulness practices such as the exploration and cultivation of positive mind states such as compassion (for self and others), kindness, equanimity and gratitude. It is this last quality that I was leading a practice around this week, allowing our online community of practice the chance to acknowledge, reflect upon and dwell on things they have enjoyed, gifts they have received, and achievements they have won.
There are two theoretical references for this. This type of practice draws upon the work of evolutionary psychologist Paul Gilbert (Gilbert & Choden, 2013) and neuro-psychologist Rick Hanson (in fact the practice was largely based on Hanson’s ‘taking in the good’ approach, see also Hanson & Hanson, 2020). Gilbert suggests that a lot of human unhappiness results from the fact that we have a rather uneasy relationship with our evolutionary inheritance, which has bequeathed us with a threat system that often over-rides our affiliative and self-soothing potential. The new human society with its algorithmic blizzard, multifarious representations and, I would argue, loss of knowledge hierarchies, is a place where it’s no surprise the threat system shouts loudest. For Gilbert we can cultivate more affiliative and compassionate awareness through compassion-based mindfulness practices.
Hanson argues that we can rewire our brain through the deliberate dwelling on positive experiences. He urges us to marinade our awareness in simple acts of appreciation, gratitude and achievement. Hanson suggests, in a similar fashion to Gilbert, that humans have a negativity bias. For our minds, with their threat radar, we become, as he suggests, Teflon to praise, and Velcro to criticism.
So, I sat with my students in the online classroom, and beyond an initial settling routine, invited them to think of how they felt when they tasted the first sip of coffee, or allowed themselves to sleep on, or they noticed the birdsong. I invited them to think about the smile, the greeting, the call or praise, and I invited them to think about some exercise achieved, some writing done, or meal cooked. And we dwelled on these moments, allowing them to explore how these suffused their sensations. We finished the practice by forming the intention to dwell like this on the next positive moments in our day.
These 30-minute sessions have become a pivotal part of my day, nourishing me, making me more discerning about my mind diet. As I stated at the outset, we are within a global transition. The student teachers I’ve been working with may not be able to resume campus learning soon or school placements as they’d hoped. Across the world learners of all ages are in the same situation. In introducing mindfulness to these students I guess one of the hopes is that when they are feeling wobbly in these moments of transition, that it’s so important to touch in with the good, with the positive potential of each moment, to notice the beauty of life around us, to balance the negativity bias, the threat that uncertainty throws at us.
Buddhism, perhaps the most psychological of the world’s religions (or religious of the world’s psychologies) suggests that the primary factor in human suffering is the refusal to acknowledge the ubiquity of change and impermanence. The ancient philosophy of Stoicism mirrors this realisation, suggesting a great deal of our misery is based on the failure to acknowledge that we should more skilfully understand the field of our agency by realising the limits of our activity. Mindfulness is an aspect of both these traditions (and many others), a way of recollecting what is the case and what we can enact, a way of exploring and developing values, and developing common humanity. There is a great deal of fear and uncertainty at this time. For me, and hopefully for others, approaches such as mindfulness can be a way of navigating it.
Gilbert, P., & Choden (2013). Mindful compassion: Using the power of mindfulness and compassion to transform our lives. London: Hachette.
Hanson, R., & Hanson, F. (2020). Resilient: how to grow an unshakable core of calm, strength, and happiness. London: Rider.
You might be interested in Rick Hanson’s TEd Talk: https://www.rickhanson.net/ted-x-marin/
Dr Graeme Nixon is a senior lecturer at the University of Aberdeen. For the last ten years he has been the programme director of the University’s MSc Studies in Mindfulness programme. He practices, publishes on and supervises research projects on mindfulness. In this field he is particularly interested in debates about the possibility of secular mindfulness, Buddhist origins and criticisms of mindfulness. Formerly a secondary teacher of Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies, Graeme retains an interest in the manifestations of meditation across multiple wisdom traditions (religious or otherwise). As a teacher educator he is particularly interested in the development of thinking skills in schools and he has written on this as well as delivered training for professionals on how to weave a suite of thinking skills approaches (including mindfulness) into their life and work.
Image copyright: Graeme Nixon