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When I ask Cowan what she sees as the benefit of teaching mindfulness to schoolchildren, she talks about a YouTube video of Fred Rogers, the host of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” on PBS, testifying before Congress. “If we can teach children that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health,” Rogers said.

“That’s what mindfulness does for children,” Cowan said. “It offers young people access to the fundamental human capacity to pay attention to oneself, to have self-awareness.” She said students very quickly discovered a quality of peace and stillness and ease, “of not having to respond to external stimulus,” which translated into a look of relief on their faces.

Cowan feels Mindful Schools has been able to enter so many schools because the mechanisms and the benefits of the program are straightforward and promote better education: mindfulness creates space between our emotions and our reactions to them, giving us the opportunity to make choices more consciously. “When I teach, I often start by talking about anger, and I ask the kids to think of as many examples as they can of things people do when they’re angry. You can imagine the list. Then I hold up two fingers tightly together and say the action so often automatically comes right after, together with the emotion.” Cowan then separates her fingers and explains that mindfulness can open up a space between them. “In that space, we have a choice.”

She points out that it’s critical to the program that it is not authoritarian, telling children what they should do, or how they should behave. “Every school has a list of rules on the wall,” she said, “but in a moment of intensity, a child is too overwhelmed to remember how they should act. Mindfulness practice could help them cultivate an internal awareness that allows them to stop momentarily and make a different choice.” The program is not trying to engineer their way of being and does not present an ideology or belief system. It’s “trying to give them access to making their own choices, but it’s not dictating what those choices are.”

Although mindfulness practice does not dictate choices, there is faith that when given an honest choice in a real moment of space, people will choose peace. “So often the children tell me,” Cowan said, “‘I was so angry and I was about to kick my little brother, throw a glass—or even go get a weapon—but then I remembered my mindfulness and calmed down.’ At the end of one session, a boy said, ‘I think if we did this every day, there would be no more fighting.’”


From the May 2011 issue of the Shambhala Sun. Click here to browse the entire issue online.






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