Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, a renowned proponent of applying the practice of mindfulness in schools, addressed the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) Wednesday evening in Longfellow Hall about the effectiveness of such training in countering the pressures and effects of anxiety, stress, chronic pain, and illness on the body, mind, and brain.

The practice of mindfulness, a systematic way of paying attention and cultivating well-being, is becoming an increasingly important tool in education, from top-level leaders to elementary schoolchildren.

Mindfulness has been used to promote social and emotional learning in children, to teach college students how to savor the joys and challenges of academic life with calmness and clarity, and to help educational leaders ease work stress and build vital attention skills to stay present and receptive in the moment.

Kabat-Zinn is a professor of medicine emeritus and the founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Over the last three decades, mindfulness has moved from the fringes of medicine to the mainstream as an effective tool to manage pain and stress. Many attribute the shift to Kabat-Zinn’s pioneering research and advocacy.

“The reason I started this work in the first place is that I thought … it would be valuable if human beings actually knew how to meditate, how to really befriend themselves in a way that wasn’t to have an effect, not to get some good feeling … but because anything else is a kind of living a diminished life,” he said.

Mindfulness “allows us to meet the full catastrophe of the human condition. Difficult things happen, terrifying things happen, unwanted things happen, but the real question is how we’re going to be in relationship to them. That’s the challenge. And that’s what mindfulness is about,” he said.

Kabat-Zinn believes that mindfulness training in K–12 classrooms — what he calls “contemplative education” — can provide physiological benefits and useful tools for both students and teachers.

“What we’re talking about is skill development. Compassion is a skill, kindness is a skill, attention is a skill, awareness is a skill,” he said. “So it’s not just for stress reduction.

“The development of these deep, positive, pro-social qualities for interacting, for relating, for emotional intelligence, and also for all of the intellectual qualities” that can be subverted by lapses in “our capacity to pay attention, sustain attention, and penetrate to the root of what’s actually going on …  to me, if you learn that in school, you’re going to be in really good shape as an adult.”

Before that can happen, teachers first need to understand how mindfulness works, and then how to integrate it successfully in the classroom.

“We really need” to master “how to completely tune the instrument of learning. I use the metaphor of an orchestra. You take the Boston Symphony Orchestra: great musicians, great instruments, playing great music. They do not just get together and start playing. They spend plenty of time … listening very, very carefully” to each other, Kabat-Zinn said.

“So if you’re going to be learning in an environment like the classroom, why not learn to tune the instrument of learning and help them to get into some kind of alignment, calmness, clarity, emotional regulation, where they can be open to what’s actually available to them?”

Such efforts will change not only the immediate experience of learning for students, but also their lifelong pursuit of knowledge, he said.

“Real education never ends. You’re pulling on something that’s already intrinsic inside. It’s not like putting stuff in, it’s not like filling a pail. Instead, it becomes a love affair with learning. There’s very little that’s not really interesting if you, in some sense, are grounded in who you are.”

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