November 21th, 2013
Sharing resources I’ve collected and created over my teaching and learning career is one of my passions. This blog series offers insights into books covering a broad range of topics contributing to mindful education, including yoga, meditation, democratic education, pedagogy, diversity, culture and more.
Choosing the first book of this series was both difficult and a “no-brainer.” There are so many stellar publications I gain inspiration from. I wanted to offer something a little off the beaten path and at the same time highlight a strong resource to get this series flowing. When I flipped though The Mindful Brain, by Daniel J. Siegel, I was reminded of the impact this book has had on my work. It’s not that the book professes some altogether new information, but it validates, with hard science, what I have always found to be true and effective in my teaching practice.
I recall reading this book on an airplane ride to teach a school yoga training in Tokyo. The book was part of my research for my master’s thesis. I wondered if my fellow passengers were aware of my constant nodding. In fact, the book has more lines highlighted, pages post-it tagged and paragraphs notated than not!
Here I will share a few key passages and commentary to help you determine if this book contains knowledge you want.
“A mindful approach to therapy and to education involves a shift in our attitude toward the individuals with whom we work. The active involvement of the student in the learning process enables the teacher to join as a collaborative explorer in the journey of discovery that teaching can be: We can embrace both knowledge and uncertainty with curiosity, openness, acceptance, and kind regard. The teacher does not have to be a source of the illusion of absolute knowledge. Together, educator and student can face the exciting challenge of developing a scaffold of knowledge that embraces the nature of knowing and its inherent context dependence and subtle sources of novelty and distinction” (Siegel).
This concept of teacher as participant rather than leader of the learning experience is one I believe can have a critical impact on teacher-student relationship in the realms of mindfulness and yoga. Abuse of power and egocentricity continue to grow in the modern iterations of these ancient practices. I believe the evolution of these disciplines will involve a new paradigm of teacher-student power dynamic. The teacher of yoga no longer spends decades in practice and study beofre taking on a few students. Most modern yoga teachers are beginners ourselves. There is no need or efficacy in pretending to have some absolute knowledge. When we enter the learning process with curiosity and wonder ourselves, we mirror those same qualities in our students.
“Reflection on the nature of one’s own mental processes is a form of “metacognition,” thinking about thinking in the broadest sense; when we have meta-awareness this indicates awareness of awareness. Whether we are engaging in yoga or centering prayer, sitting and sensing our breathing in the morning, or doing tai chi at night, each MAP [mindful awareness practice] develops this capacity to be aware of awareness…mindful awareness involves reflection on the inner nature of life, on the events of the mind that are emerging, moment by moment” (Siegel).
This “awareness of awareness” concept that Dan continues to develop throughout the book is the predecessor to self-regulation. Have you seen the movie Bully? Remember the scene where the mother of the boy being physically attacked on the bus asks him about his day. The boy is silent. He has no skills for expressing his experience. News has recently emerged about Adam Lanza, the Newtown school shooter, reporting that his mother inquired about his school life with no response from the boy. When kids and teens learn how to become aware of their awareness, they gain access to a host of skills that are paramount to mental health, including the ability to notice and express emotions. Otherwise, feelings and thoughts, especially painful ones, go unseen and end up pooling in a dark place that eventually finds expression. Unfortunately, that expression is all to often from an unconscious need for resolve, rather than a state of awareness.
“Each of us has a mind with great potential. We have the possibility of creating a world of compassion and well-being and we have the capacity for mindless violence and destruction. [A new powerful lesson] has been in the profound plasticity of the human brain. We can actually focus our minds in a way that changes the structure and function of the brain throughout our lives. As a mindset, being aware of the present moment without grasping onto judgments offers a powerful path toward both compassion and inner well-being. This is what science verifies and what has been taught over thousands of years of practice” (Siegel).
What great news! We can change, or evolve, our brains from the fear-based circuitry that upholds violence to a more compassionate state that supports well-being. As Dan illustrates in detail with this book, “being aware of the present moment without grasping onto judgments” creates a gap between our entrenched beliefs based on past experiences and the possibility of experiencing our lives fresh and new, with courage.
Thank you, Dan Siegel, for the critical work you do in supporting mindfulness in education. To learn more about Dan and his work, visit his website.
Abby Wills, MA, E-RYT
Shanti Generation, Co-Founder, Program Director
Abby brings her passion for developmental education and deep respect for the tradition of yoga to her work guiding youth and teachers in contemplative arts. Abby’s approach is informed by studies in social justice and democratic education at Pacific Oaks College, as well as two decades of training in yoga.