Mindfulness in Schools: Richard Burnett at TEDxWhitechapel

Mindfulness in Schools: Richard Burnett at TEDxWhitechapel

Translator: Tanya Cushman
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven The Mindfulness in Schools Project was created when
some teaching colleagues and I shared an ambition
to bring together two things that were really close to our hearts. One was mindfulness practice,
which we’d be doing for many years, and the other was the art
of classroom teaching, which as a teacher I can tell you, none of us would ever claim
to have mastered but which is a real craft. And we ended up writing a nine-week classroom introduction
to mindfulness, which we called “.b,” for reasons which I will explain later. And .b was, in essence,
the answer to a very simple question: When 25 teenagers come tumbling
into your classroom at 11:45 on some wet Tuesday morning, how are you going to persuade them
that they want to learn mindfulness? They’ve never heard of it. It doesn’t sound that thrilling. And if you told them that it involved
sitting still and sitting quietly, they would run a mile. They are not going to come into the class and look at you,
all bright-eyed and expectant, saying “Please, sir, teach us mindfulness for we know it will make us happy
and we shall flourish.” (Laughter) No. It just doesn’t work like that. How are you going to convince them that mindfulness is a life skill
which is really worth learning, that can make a tremendous
difference to their lives? You know that it can,
but they don’t know that. And .b was really our answer
to the challenge we set ourselves, which was to write a mindfulness course
which was engaging, fun, memorable and also of practical use
on the roller coaster that is adolescence. The other thing that struck us was, Why is it in schools – a few people
have touched on this today – do we teach English, maths, geography, chemistry, biology, physics, languages, but we never – very, very rarely –
teach young people to use the lens, to best use the lens, through which all of their experience,
both at home and at school, is being filtered? And that is the faculty
of their attention. Some of you, I imagine, have learned
a lot about mindfulness already. Some might not know very much. But what we always see in pretty much any definition
of mindfulness is the word “attention.” And what a lot of research
is telling us at the moment and what I know from my own experience
and from the kids that I taught is that our mental health and happiness are profoundly shaped
by what we do with our attention. What do I mean by attention? What I mean is that faculty of awareness that you can probably sense
as you sit here right now. How is your attention? Is it zoomed in on me? That would be nice; I’d hope
there was some of it zoomed in on me. Or is there a bit of hunger
in the background? Is the mind wandering around a bit? If we’re quiet just for a few moments … notice how our attention
opens up to the soundscape around us. Your experience of this moment, like the experience
of every moment of your life, is profoundly shaped
by where you place your attention and how you place your attention. Now, being a schoolteacher, I cannot give a talk
without involving my class. So are you ready to do
a little mindfulness exercise? (Audience) Yes. Good. And if you are at home, please do this; otherwise, I will look very strange. Please join in this exercise
for it to make sense. This is one of the first exercises
we do on the course. What I’m going to do is I’m going
to count down three, two, one, and then I’m going to count up, and we’re all going to count up,
clapping one, two, three. Then we’re going to hold
out our hands about that far apart as if we’re holding a football. Okay, so I’ll go, “Three, two, one.” We all go, “One, two, three,” and then hold out our hands
as if we’re holding a football. Why don’t we just sit up
to give this some attitude as well. Classic feet shoulder-width
apart on the floor. Okay? Clap as hard as you can. Three, two, one. (Clapping) One, two, three. Now, without looking at them, and even closing your eyes
if you’re happy to do that, try placing your attention in your hands. Now, what do you notice there? Fizzing? Tingling? Pins and needles-y? Hot? Cold? Now, let’s play with our attention. Try zooming your attention
in on your thumbs. And then, letting go
of the attention in your thumbs, try zooming your attention in now
on your little fingers. And if you’re happy with that, why not try the tippy tip
of your left little finger. And then, just quietly, silently
resting your hands in your lap and bringing your attention to something you do
about 20,000 times a day but very rarely notice, and that’s your breathing. Just feeling the air
coming in through your nostrils, directing your attention
to the touch of the air as it comes in and as your abdomen expands. Just being with your breathing
for a few moments. Okay. Thank you. What a good class. Now, I’m going to try and illustrate
what the point of that exercise was with a little diagram, which is known in the trade
as the “two slices of cheese” diagram. Here’s the first slice of cheese. This is where we spend
a great deal of our time. Our attention is absorbed in our thinking, and it tends to be absorbed in planning,
remembering, analyzing, evaluating. What I’m talking about here
is that little voice inside your head, that little monkey that
yabbers away at you all the time, that internal narrative,
that tape that’s playing. Who knows what it’s saying. You know, “Have I called the dentist?” “Pizza.” “I can’t believe I said that to my boss;
he’s going to think I’m useless.” “Did I lock the car door?” Now, for very good reasons,
our attention tends to go to what’s wrong, to what’s threatening, to what’s worrying, to what’s lacking, and there’s a very good
survival reason for this. Our ancestors faced
a lot of threats and dangers; they had to be alert. If I went down this path
and came across a saber-toothed tiger, it was worth me remembering that and planning next time
to go down that path. And that piece of evolutionary software is still very much a part
of the way we think. We scan, our attention scans,
our experience for problems, and when it finds one,
it latches on to it. Somebody once said that the mind is like Teflon
for good experiences: nonstick, they slide off. But it’s like Velcro for bad ones: when something happens,
it snags our attention. It might be one unkind word. It might be a text that you send
and you don’t get a reply to. It might be as easy
as walking down the street and somebody you know
not looking at you as you walk past. Bang – your mind kicks off into that whole mode of trying
to work out what’s been going on. Now, there is another mode of mind, and that is what we were doing
in the exercise we just did. We were in our sensing mode. Our attention was directed to the present moment reality
of our physical bodily sensations. Now, a lot of the time,
our attention is allocated like this: mostly thinking, not much sensing. And one could say of us what James Joyce says
of Mr. Duffy in Dubliners: “He lived at a little distance
from his body.” We have a body, we’re aware of it,
but we don’t really inhabit it. We inhabit our heads, and they chatter away at us all the time, and the sensing is just kind of going on
in autopilot in the background. Now, what a lot of research
is telling us now and what is also – you know,
once you practice this – just common sense is how profoundly beneficial it is to spend even a relatively small
amount of time every day with your attention allocated
in this way, into the sensing mode – as we were doing then, as we can do now. Just breathing. Being aware of our body as it breathes. Being aware of our feet on the floor. And by doing this,
our minds are not spinning off into their stories
and their interpretations about what they think is happening. No, our minds are here
in the present moment, experiencing what is actually happening, and what is actually happening
is that we are alive, and it can be wonderful
in all sorts of situations. Now, we have to train this. So when the mind wanders,
we bring it back. If it wanders 100 times, we bring it back. But what we’re doing is we are training
the muscle of our attention, and that is the foundation of mindfulness. And it’s not just good for the mind. I was so relieved when I read
a piece of research, about five years ago, that said that mindfulness practice
improved immune function. I had noticed, after I started
practicing mindfulness, that I was getting fewer colds. I never told anybody, nobody. They thought I was a bit weird anyway, kind of sitting on the floor
the way I did. And I thought, well, if they thought sitting on the floor
was somehow stopping colds – How can sitting on the floor every day
stop me from getting colds? And what this research said
was quite straightforward: You’re less stressed;
there’s less cortisol. Cortisol is a suppressor
of the immune system. So that’s just one of the benefits. I mean, the other one,
which, in terms of young people – I’m sorry, just one thing here. What I’m not doing, by the way, I’m not a teacher here, telling that we should tell
our young people not to think. Okay, that’s not what I’m saying at all. Mindfulness is about recognizing when thinking becomes
overthinking and rumination, yeah, and knowing how to change gear into a mode of mind
which is more nourishing. Okay, because if you don’t, what can happen is anxiety
and even depression, and one of the most telling signs of the traction that mindfulness
is getting in the adult world is this: that NICE, the National Institute
for Clinical Excellence, is now recommending mindfulness
as a treatment for depression. You can go to the GP
with a recurrent depression and be prescribed
an eight-week mindfulness course. (Audience) Great! Which is wonderful. But isn’t it, therefore,
a total no-brainer that with the spiraling
depression in young people, that this should be
being taught in our schools? Couple of examples. You know, at a more serious level, one girl came up to me
and said how helpful it had been to know how to bring her attention
to her breathing and her feet when her mother was screaming at her. Because normally she would lose control
and just get incredibly upset. But she found that refuge,
ahh, in the present moment, and that was a tremendous relief for her. At a more trivial level,
but in some ways not so trivial, is exams are so much a part
of school life now. They cause tremendous anxiety. But countless times, I’ve had kids come up to me
a year, two years, even three years later and said, “Oh, sir, I was standing
outside the exam hall, and I was bricking it” – which, for those of you
don’t live in the UK, means “I was very, very nervous” – (Laughter) “and I did .b,” or “I did a 7-11” – which is two of the exercises we teach – “and it really helped.” But the other interesting thing
is that mindfulness in the adult world now is not just about
getting out of a bad space; it’s also about getting into a good space. Actually, in all sorts
of circumstances and applications that mindfulness is coming up, one of those is in business. We’ve got Google, Apple, IBM,
PWC, KPMG, General Mills. Somebody told me that eBay now have a mindfulness room
in their headquarters. So, in other words, these people
are seeing the potential of a life skill, which is not only making their employees
healthier and happier and, interestingly, kinder to themselves
and to their colleagues, but it’s also helping them to work better. Now, again, in schools, what we’re finding
is that the places kids are using this is in things like drama, to stay centered; in music, not to be overcome
with the nerves when they’re playing; in sport, when they’re making a big kick. And that’s another reason why mindfulness can bring so much
to a school community. Now, the question now
is why did we call it “.b”? Well, what we did in lesson four was to get each of the kids
to “.b” each other on their mobiles, which just means texting .b
once a day for a week. And when you get your .b,
it is just a signal. That dot says, “Stop, ahh, just pause. Come out of that relentless stream
of your own internal narrative and notice that you are alive, notice that you are breathing, that you are right here, right now.” That is what the “b” is. It’s “breathe,” but it’s also “be,” just exist. And, you know, examples of how
that comes to life in an adult context – sorry, in a kid’s life
or an adolescent’s life, is a 16-year-old – this is one of the earliest .b stories. If I had more time,
I could tell you countless .b stories, these bizarre situations
that people get dot-b’d. But one of the earlier ones, yes,
one of the earlier ones – (Laughter) it’s not the time or the place. One of the earliest .b stories was of a young man
who came out of a nightclub, and the girl that he was with just collapsed on the floor
in front of him. Probably vodka, something. Just was on the floor. He felt really panicky
and really stressed and really worried. And suddenly, ping, .b. “Ahh, okay, this is now, this is here. Breathe. Feel your feet on the floor.” And he said it just really helped him
just to see the situation clearly. You know, recovery position,
999 – job done. (Laughter) Okay. Now, I’d like to finish
with this quote from William James. Very prescient that in 1890,
he was able to spot this. “The faculty of voluntarily bringing back
a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgment,
character and will. An education which should
improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. But it is easier to define this ideal than to give practical instructions
for bringing it about.” Well, now, we do have those practical
instructions for bringing it out. They are tried and tested, and the research evidence
is telling us, time and again, that it is not only good
for their mental health and happiness but for them to be themselves
at their very best. The problem, of course, is that in the vast majority of schools,
these skills are just not available. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if they were? Wouldn’t it be wonderful
if we could teach young people to train their attention in the same way we teach them to read
and we teach them to write? What a difference that would make
to every moment of their experience. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is really the ambition
of the Mindfulness in Schools Project. Thank you. (Applause)

50 Replies to “Mindfulness in Schools: Richard Burnett at TEDxWhitechapel”

  1. They tried showing us these exercises once in a drama class, but it just seemed so strange and they didn't explain what it was meant to do we couldn't focus on the exercises at all! I really wish had paid more attention now, .b seems to be really useful.

  2. im 17 and iv always wished mediation was taught in schools i would be that kid who would look bright eyed and say please sir teach us mindfulness!

  3. Despite a public education system designed to produce worker slaves, actual humanity still can shine through. Richard Burnett is a great example. I had several teachers who, like Richard, understood what education is really about: focusing attention and having fun. This presentation nails it on all levels, and is one of the top TED talks!

  4. Attending this training at Rolling Ridge in Andover Mass – It was wonderful.
    Looking for any professional development venues and … an chance to practice this .B in a regular classroom. lee at cognitive yoga

  5. I have been involved with this project for a couple of years and am regularly moved to tears by the tangible and remarkable results I personally witness. Having attended a number of teacher training courses it is also delightful to see educational professionals from all over the word coming to the UK to learn about '.b'.
    Like all good things it acts as a goodness magnet that continues to pull excellent people. I am thrilled and honoured to be part of it.
    Bless you Richard and Chris!

  6. Thank you. Love it. My high cortisol levels nearly killed me three years ago. It took a very long time to recover. I learned how to meditate, do yoga and yoga nidra which helped me overcome insomnia and heal. Now I am teaching again and for my weekly after school activity session I am teaching pupils mindfulness. I plan on showing the pupils a section of your Ted Talk. Thank you.

  7. love the reactions and reflections about high cortisol levels and the practice of meditation and how to help the body, healing and overcoming insomnia..mindfulness is very important and to speak about awareness and consciousness is only possible when we teach them and practice this what it is, love this video 

  8. Yes, yes, YES! Well articulated, convincing, and sane. Burnett clearly is a meditator; many teachers mistakenly explain it as a way to relax, but Burnett clearly knows it is far more than this. The idea of turning it into a social phenomenon with ".b" is borderline genius.
    As a small critique, as an experienced meditator myself, I would encourage beginners to meditate with EYES-OPEN, in my opinion. The reason being: With eyes-closed, tiredness or lax-ness often starts to set in, and attention and focus wanes. For mindfulness to be at it's most effective, practitioners need to be alert, but not overly energetic (e.g. caffeine tends to hinder much more than it helps, in my experience). Meditating with eyes-closed has it's benefits too, but in different ways.
    My sincere hope is that in a few years, every school on the planet will have time daily devoted to mindfulness/meditation. It may seem so trivial, but it could have a significant impact in world affairs; gradually reducing conflict and violence, building a more altruistic society etc. Thank you, Mr Burnett!

  9. Thanks for sharing this important information. As a middle school nurse I have first hand experience with children that could use mindful education at school. I will look into this program.

  10. Dit heeft het onderwijs van de toekomst zo nodig en dat onderwijs van de toekomst begint vandaag, het is er al! Maar hopen dat we dat onze leerlingen en kinderen ook mee kunnen geven.

  11. Word Up Eric Oostdjick…Start the children at the very least by Kindergarten. We Must! watch this world fix its turvy self atop again. So positive to see this Energy Force empowering millions, believe this is the knowledge that counters THEIR indoctrination.

  12. It's a fantastic idea but the major problem is that a teacher has to go down to London for 9 weeks to learn this for their school. Doesn't help when you live in Newcastle, Manchester, or Glasgow. Needs to be more available across UK

  13. Yes, I totally agree! More needs to be done to bring mindfulness into schools, and it needs to be inclusive for all abilities. You may be interested in my new book: ‘Mindful Little Yogis: Self-Regulation Tools to Empower Kids with Special Needs to Breathe and Relax’ 🌺

  14. I was beginning to wonder why there are so many psychotic actions by kids getting into the news. It is because we are training their faculties outside the context of moral obligation. We are enabling them to utilize their faculties to full potential without aim, and to be capable of putting it to the use of whatever they decide. It's like if I teach my little brother how to use a gun before ensuring his psychological profile as sound or ensuring that his character is morally upright and dedicated to what is good. Instructing children in harnessing their consciousness as an amoral tool is making them readily weaponizable by anyone who can convince them to obey them – and extremely capable of executing an action for any cause – very good or very bad, without distinction.

  15. Thank you for this beautiful talk. I would like to translate it to French for a community of meditation teachers here. Could you please enable community contributions so I can add them? Cheers!

  16. I wonder if we are mindful all the time it means that we have to stop thinking and focus to the sensory. My creativity comes from mind racing and mindfulness disturb it. When I focus on something it involves thinking and developing the thought but trying to be mindful makes me more harder to that process. I may be wrong about mindfulness and I wanna know if it is good tool for all situation.

  17. Do not participate in this. You are opening yourself up to demonic spirits. If you are a parent, please do not allow your children to participate in this at school. This does not come from God. This is of satan. One of his many deceptions. This is a hindu spiritual practice that does not belong in schools. School is for reading writing math and spelling. Not spiritual things. It should be an optional extra curricular activity separate from school curriculum. Not a mandatory practice or graded school work. I encourage everyone to thoroughly research everything and educate yourself. Do not take anything at face value. God warms us to be stay away from things like this for a reason. He is trying to protect us from danger. Please heed his warning

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