Meditation in Schools? Worth Consideration!
Does the word meditation make you uncomfortable? I am reading, and recommend, a book by Russell Simmons called “Success Through Stillness”. Simmons himself meditates twice a day for 20 minute intervals. . .with his children. He is recommending that we teach meditation in schools. Based on my own experience as a high-school teacher, as a Mother and with experience meditating, I agree.
But if the word meditation makes you uncomfortable, as it once did me, we probably need to carefully define what is meant by meditation in the context of Simmons’s book. . .and this article.
“Meditation has been practiced since antiquity as a component of numerous religious traditions and beliefs.” – Wikipedia
But here, in the West, we tend to focus only on the physical, mental and emotional benefits of this exercise of the mind.
“Meditation often involves an internal effort to self-regulate the mind in some way. Meditation is often used to clear the mind and ease many health issues, such as high blood pressure, depression, and anxiety.” – Wikipedia
“. . . includes techniques designed to promote relaxation, build internal energy or life force (qi, ki, prana, etc.) and develop compassion, love, patience, generosity and forgiveness.” – Wikipedia
The practice of meditation is one of sitting in silence. . .and trying to clear your mind of all the clutter that runs through it most of the time. Generally, this is supported by focusing on one thing. . . such as the sound/feel of your own breathing. . .or reciting a manta. . .over and over. That is simplistic. . .but the point is that if you manage to clear your mind. . .it gets some much needed rest from the chaos and noise that is everyday life for so many of us. It takes you to a place where you find inner peace. And that brings calm.
When I was a young woman, meditation entered the pop culture when the Beatles started hanging out with a yogi. . .whose title and name I no longer recall. At the time it struck me as bizarre and something from which to shy away.
But, you know how you meet people as you travel through life, sometimes just a passing meeting. . .other times a brief friendship. . .and with each you feel that you have gained something through the experience? Well, I once became acquainted with a colleague. We had a ‘head’ connection of some type. He was very intelligent and open, although he was, I would say, a tortured soul.
When I learned that my colleague and friend studied meditation, I asked him about it. He pointed out that “Jesus himself meditated” and that it was very common in eastern countries. And he wondered: Since Jesus meditated, why do you suppose the Christian church no longer teaches meditation? Well priests and monks and perhaps other clergy practice meditation . . .is it possible that it is seen as a practice for only certain Christians today? His thoughts . . .got my mind working on the topic.
Rather than give into the temptation to tell you about my journey with meditation, suffice it to say that I started to learn about meditation. . . and to try to practice it. Meditation became another marker in my journey . . .a marker of progress. . .life changing progress. Now, I should add, that I see Jesus as my guru even though my initial lessons came from a holy man from the east. And I always ask Jesus to be with me and to guide me as I try to meditate. I personally believe meditation helped me to build a personal relationship with God. That is my personal story.
But that is not the objective of putting the practice into schools. The movement is not about religion. . .any religion. Once you understand what happens physically for people who meditate you will understand why this movement to bring the practice into schools is supported by many who meditate.
So below, I’ve summarized some key points about the physical impact of meditation from Simmons’s book, especially those which are supported by research.
Consider the brain
There are many different parts to the brain.
- You probably already know that the cerebrum is the largest part and is divided into right and left hemispheres. The left is where linear, logical and language-based thinking occur. The right is where non-linear and emotional thinking takes place.
- The corpus calloseum is a bridge that connects the two sides. However as we age we tend to focus on one side over the other and stop using the bridge. Meditation helps you to start using that bridge between the right and left hemispheres of the brain.
Think about it. There is great value in being able to tap into the side of your brain that you have come to use least. Think how much smoother communication would be with this versatility.
Supporting evidence: Simmons points to a study by UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging . . .using diffusion tensor imaging [similar to MRI] to look at the structural connectivity of the brain. They found the corpus calloseum to be more connected with the right and left hemispheres in people who meditate.
You will find you can do things that you’ve wanted to do . . .but never felt equipped to do. [I can’t draw. I can’t do math. Again simplistic but I hope it makes the point]
- The limbic brain is the part of your brain where the most basic emotions are generated. . .like fight or flight.
- The amygdala sits in front of the limbic brain to guard it and advise if a situation is dangerous or not. Simmons creates an analogy of the limbic brain to a car owner and the amygdala to the car alarm system.
When the amygdala sounds the alarm, the limbic brain releases stress hormones [adrenaline and cortisol] that create a sense of fear and anxiety in your body. You need this fight/flight alarm. . .but meditation can train the amygdala to differentiate between annoying situations. . .and those that are truly dangerous.
[Think road rage. Think anger management.]
Meditation gives the amygdala a chance to make more calm assessments of the situation.
Simmon’s thesis is that we would all be better off by not releasing these ‘toxic’ chemicals so often. . .so that we might choose to let some of those situations, those that are not really life threatening, just go by.
Now, think about your ‘acting out’ or ‘explosive’ child or teen. Is it possible that meditation can help them to not react out of proportion to a situation? Would that serve their best interests? Simmons believes so. I do as well. . .because I have told my children if there was one thing I could go back and change. ..I would teach them meditation from a young age and we would practice it daily, just as Russell Simmons is doing with his children.
Relaxation and reduced stress
Meditation helps relax your mind. [Hey, SuperMoms. . .could your mind need a little R&R? Seems like anyone with too much on their plate. . .or who is subject to stress could use it too.]
We always have electronic signals knows as beta, alpha, delta, theta and gamma waves, pulsing through our brains. . .awake or asleep. [The brain is always in action.]
- Beta waves are associated with goal-oriented tasks and problem solving
- Alpha and theta waves are associated with restfulness
- Delta waves are normally most active during sleep.
Supporting evidence: In the 70’s cardiologist Dr. Herbert Benson conducted a study at Harvard where he measured the blood pressure, brain waves, and body temperatures of people meditating. [I remember reading years ago that studies of a group of monks who meditated showed that their body temperatures rose during meditation. Wow! Sounds like that would burn calories.]
The study showed that while meditating, people used 17 percent less oxygen, lowered their heart rates by three beats a minute, and decreased their beta brain waves while increasing alpha and theta brain waves. Dr. Benson concluded that the rest people receive during meditation is often as deep or even deeper than what they might experience during sleep.
A recent study by the University of Sydney in Australia also showed that when we meditate, our beta waves decrease. During meditation, the part of your brain that is making plans and solving problems gets to rest! As a result, you feel relaxed and more focused. [I recall reading an article that stated that Buckminster Fuller did not sleep at night. Rather, he would sleep in 10 minute snatches whenever he needed rest. Perhaps he was meditating and getting even better rest than he would sleeping.]
Retraining your brain
Simmons asserts that through meditation, we can actually make physical changes in our brains. . .changes that promote emotional and spiritual happiness.
The western view that as we age our brains lose the ability to grow is being dispelled. Scientists are discovering that through meditation, our brains can keep literally growing into old age.
[I wonder what meaning this has for Alzheimers and other demetia?]
Supporting Evidence: Dr. Eileen Luders, a professor at UCLA [cited as helping with the UCLA study mentioned above] states: “Regular use [of meditation] may strengthen the connections between neurons and can also make new connetions,” and “these tiny changes in thousands of connections, can lead to visible changes in the structure of the brain.”
The study found that in addition to increasing use of the corpus calloseum, meditation also promoted positive growth in the amount of gray matter, i.e. the cells that are responsible for your memory, sense of self, attention, and empathy. [As someone who is concerned about Alzheimers, this got my attention.]
A team of researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital used MRIs to study the brains of people who had recently started meditating and found that after even several weeks, their gray matter had begun thickening.
Another scientist, Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconson, found similar results in a study he did on Tibetan monks who were master meditators and found that they showed brain activation on a scale never previously seen.
Yale University psychiatry professor Hedy Kober studied the effects of meditation on people with stress of nicotine withdrawal. She concluded that meditation can significantly alter the experience of stress. . .meditation builds up the part of the brain that promotes memory and emotion and shrinks the part that causes stress.
In a section called ‘Helping Teenagers Put On the Brakes” Simmons discusses the impact meditation is having in schools that have adopted the practice. He spends some time outlining all of the distractions that compete for the attention of teens today. . .[each generation having many more distractions than the previous generation]. . .and he points out that it is hard for teens today to experience calm, focused moments. [Meditation can help to block out these distractions and help them focus on what’s inside.]
He cites that each level of stillness [achieved through meditation] contains more and more peace. He points out that we want to teach our teens to not just float on the surface but to slowly sink into the depths where deeper peace and happiness await. [I think one has to experience meditation to have an understanding of this description.]
Supporting evidence: Dr. Richard Friedman of Weill Cornell Medical College explained how meditation can actually slow down teenager’s tendency to get themselves into life-threatening situations.
Dr Friedman relates that different regions of the brain develop at different rates. [This is important in understanding child development. . .and your teen.] The nucleus, or reward center of the brain which drives risky behavior [sex, gambling, shoplifting, speeding in cars etc.] develops faster than the rest of our brain.
But, the pre-frontal cortex, where reasoning takes place, doesn’t develop nearly as quickly. The suggestion is that while the nucleus may be fully functioning at fifteen, the prefrontal cortex will not be fully mature until the mid-twenties.
[We can expect teens to display high-risk behavior. . .with no compensating reasoning. Wish I had known this when my children were teens!]
Simmons likens teens to cars with fully developed accelerators and underdeveloped brakes. But, meditation allows teenagers to bridge the gap between the risk-taking and reasoning parts of the brain.
There is much more packed into this book. I’ve tried to select the benefits that I believe make meditation a viable options for school curriculum . . .as long as no religion is expressed. . .just stillness.
But while we wait for this movement to take root, there is nothing stopping us as parents from learning meditation and sharing the practice with our children at home. And in that context you may consider these words:
“Be still, and know that I am God.” – Psalms 46:10
Consider picking up Simmons’s book. . .or a basic introduction to meditation.