To talk about Mindfulness I want to start with Thich Nhat Hahn. Here he is working – except he says it isn’t work – on calligraphy that conveys his central messages. As he says:

Breathe and enjoy the Kingdom of God in the here and now. Breathe and enjoy this wonderful moment.

I’ll stop there and do just that before I continue.





In preparing a class on spirituality for the Education Studies students at Brookes, I have a number of choices about how to approach mindfulness.

In terms of resources, there is the possibility of using words from Thich Nhat Hanh himself and the wonderful music and Nature graphics in the Great Bell Chant.   There have been times when turning the lights back on after showing those 7 mins to students has felt really quite a disruption to a sense of quiet: it is (for me and for some of them) a moving little bit of film.

The universal dharma door
is already open.
The sound of the rising tide
is heard clearly…

(3 mins ff)

and I will probably need to weave these in with this cute and thought-provoking footage from a school in Ireland.

But here I find myself in a bit of a quandary. There seems to me to be something of a divergence of expectations here. Quite what does Mindfulness (or spirituality in general) do in schools? Let’s look at what the children say, speaking of their jars full of sequins and other glittery materials that exemplify their minds – shaken and busy with ideas and feelings:

“Your jar is like your heart and there’s loads of stuff inside it….”

“Your mind is so busy it can’t think of a load of things…”

“…and then when you leave it to settle you take a deep breath and then it all goes to the bottom.”

Lovely stuff, and drawing on a similar story from Thich Nhat Hanh about watching apple juice settle.   I would hope that the children are the better in some way from practising this.

The clip goes on, however, to present the children’s acts of kindness and what they are thankful for. They are personal, domestic things – making breakfast, giving mum some peace, feeding the dog; being thankful for food, presents, a warm house. So with one short clip (we have to admit it is short, edited, &c.) we move from mindfulness through kindness and gratitude.

These are interesting values and practices for schools to promote. The way they are presented is that mindfulness makes you think more clearly, acts of kindness earn the approbation of adults, and we can be grateful for what adults provide. Of course, the converse might be things we want to avoid – chaotic thinking from ungrateful, unkind children (or adults), but is this really mindfulness, or a new, maybe more accessible and acceptable catechism? Christian children all must be/Mild obedient, good as He, as the Christmas hymn goes.  This is less than the commodification of spirituality that many are wary of, but it could be its schoolification.

So in terms of practice, how might we look at Mindfulness in schools? I think we might take a lesson from Forest Schools. An initiative is seen and adopted faithfully by some, with minor alterations by others, and a dilution takes place until a school calls the weekly visit to the pond at the end of the school field by a name that might also be used by a wide-ranging, risk-taking experience some miles from the classroom. Similarly, a teacher might be a committed follower of the Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism, or they might be involved in some kind of sitting mediation themselves, or following a course of guidance on mindful meditation. I suppose That Candle Thing sits somewhere around this marker – and the original project for that was a largely improvised activity.  Or they might have read a book on the subject, or seen a bit of mindfulness practice as part of their Initial Teacher Education or some CPD and think that this is something they might spread more widely. I find I am thinking “Think Raisins:” the quick introduction to mindfulness many have experienced as CPD in schools where people contemplate a raisin. Is this enough to think about how one might adapt a practice to school life?

I’m not arguing for regulation and accreditation but for a recognition of foundational ideas and texts. Here – although Buddhist meditation can’t really have a foundation text from the 1970s (can it?) – I would want to refer back to The Miracle of Mindfulness. Not all books on mindfulness will acknowledge the source, something I find a bit disturbing, but here are some of the things Thich Nhat Hanh has to say, first about what mindfulness does and then what we do about or with it.

I like to walk alone on country paths, rice plants and wild grasses on both sides, putting each foot down on the earth in mindfulness, knowing that I walk on the wondrous earth. In such moments, existence is a miraculous and mysterious reality.

People usually consider walking on water or on thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or on thin air, but to walk on earth.

and then, more practically

Your breath should be light, even and flowing, like a thin stream of water running through the sand. Your breath should be very quiet, so quiet that the person sitting next to you cannot hear it… To master our breath is to be in control of our bodies and minds… Each time we find ourselves dispersed an find it difficult to gain control of ourselves by different means, the method of watching the breath should always be used.


And of course there’s much more.

Is this what the children are doing? Should their eyes be open or shut? Does it matter and if so why?  Do the foundation texts need to be in play? And is this spirituality?  Well, it will depend (cop-out phrase coming) on what we mean by spirituality. Is it about making sense of self and our relationship with others, in ways that Ursula King or Andrew Wright might recognise? Is it about transcendence, devotion? What are its links to communities of faith?

Some mindfulness practices – sitting quiet, listening to your breathing, trying to just be rather than plan dinner or think great thoughts, or fight feelings of inadequacy (yes, this is me, in meditation) – can be seen as practices arising from spiritual traditions in East and West. In that sense they are part of spirituality. They differ from some (largely Western) attempts to define spirituality in that they do seem, in their purest forms, to lack a goal. Sitting to sit, washing the dishes to wash the dishes: someone who sits in meditation may find clearer water in which to view their past and present (and maybe their future), but they are chasing a bird to put salt on its tail if they think meditation will automatically give that. Sometimes when I sit it’s like sitting on a block of ice, and I am desperate to finish, or I spend all my time chasing what I should have said, how I might have looked.  I certainly am not “better” when I get up. It is not Penicillin or Novocaine.

Martin Laird’s books are a good way to see some synergy between the goal-orientated or biography-centred definitions of, say, Wright or King and the goalless sitting of Zen. His (Christian, monastic) perspective looks at the therapeutic outcomes of silence in which arises an awareness of our own psychological states:

The specific focus of this book [Into the Silent Land] will be on the practical struggles many of use face when we try to be silent – the inner chaos going on in our heads, like some wild cocktail party of which we find ourselves the embarrassed host. Often, however, we are not even aware of how utterly dominating this inner noise is until we try to enter through the doorway of silence.

Just sitting, for me, needs my eyes to be open: to sit where I am and see things come and go, rather than plunge myself into the interior cinema of deadlines or wishful thinking or regrets. I’ve written about this before when reflecting on birdsong in the morning. It also needs me to see the things that worry me as the “weather on the mountain:” not me, just the stuff that swirls about me (this is another image from Martin Laird).


Back to the classroom – both the compulsory-age children’s rooms and the HE classroom I’m preparing for.   Although it’s a lot to ask, I think I would expect spirituality in an educational context to encompass three or more aspects:

  • Awareness of self and others
  • Compassionate attitudes
  • Practices that encourage these two.

Compassion and spirituality are sometimes artificially linked: Christian warrior monks, for example, in the twelfth century had compassion for some and not others, and coupled this with intense religious practice from Cistercian roots and combat to the death. Similar attitudes might be seen in religious groups today. Nevertheless, in general, spirituality is linked often to the awareness of others we might describe as compassion. It’s a tall order to “get schools” to do this work, but it has been represented in OfSTED guidance and in local curriculum materials. It is there in germ in the aims and objectives of Oxford Brookes and other Higher Education organisations – although I have critiqued this before.  Compassionate attitudes, spirituality, real vision and purpose: they might be enunciated but not embodied. Children are wild, students are on their ‘phones, teachers and lecturers are overworked or grumpy, systems prop up systems rather than support users. It is, as I say, a tall order.

If a bit of quiet sitting does form competent, reflective, self-aware compassionate students (and staff???), I’m happy. If a lot of quiet sitting is needed, well, maybe schools and Universities need to think this through and ask what the role of education is. If sitting quiet and sparkly jars help, then fine, whether they have the backing of a training group or no. If, however, sitting and the rest is tokenistic and without wider ripples into school, then I don’t see the point.

So while my class for the  Values and Religion in Schools module will have mention of mindfulness, will look at the SACRE on spirituality, and at thinkers like Wright, and Eaude, will mention outdoors and wellbeing and read some Thich Nhat Hanh, I do not see piecemeal adoption of spiritual practices as a cure-all, any more than I think a bit of woodland exploration will save the world. But it’s a start.




2 thoughts on “Mindfulness

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