The second annual Bridging the Hearts & Minds of Youth Conference, presented by the UCSD Center for Mindfulness, took place February 1–3 in San Diego, with more than 40 speakers addressing the topic of mindfulness in clinical practice, education and research—specifically in relation to young people.
On Friday evening, Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program that has helped tens of thousands of people respond to stress more skillfully and live with greater awareness, delivered a special lecture that was open to the public as well as event attendees.
“[Mindfulness] is a matter of coming to our senses—individually and collectively—while we still have time,” he said. It is an “endless adventure of growing into ourselves,” a practice that requires paying attention “on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally.” And yet, he added, it is easy for us to dismiss this practice as trivial—and to remain captivated by “The Story of Me.”
“Unattended, [the ‘me’ story] will go anywhere and do anything to reinforce that small personal pronoun,” said Kabat-Zinn. It keeps us caught in a narrative that is “too small, too repetitive and too negative,” while “other aspects of our being go unnoticed.”
“What will today’s 3-year-olds need to know [as they go through life]?” he asked. “They’ll need to know how to differentiate thoughts from reality; how to be in their bodies; and who they are, including who they are not.”
Traditionally, education has placed great emphasis on thinking, but “our capacity for awareness is different from thought,” said Kabat-Zinn. “It’s bigger than thought. . . . Thinking is great, but what about ‘awarenessing’? What if they got equal airtime?” Awarenessing “bridges the heart and mind, befriending the two,” and “is a radical act of sanity, of wisdom, of kindness, of deep connection, of love.”
Kabat-Zinn, who prefers to see mindfulness as a way to become more fully human rather than more spiritual, also spoke of a shift underway in the field of medicine. “The find-and-fix-it model is just not adequate,” he said. “Now we’re talking about participatory medicine. Everything we do is affecting whether our genes are turned on or off—whether we’re tilted toward health or toward illness.” Mindfulness (“or heartfulness if you like to put it that way”) can help us maintain a wise relationship to stress. “This practice,” he said, “is an absolute necessity for the next generation of young people to survive.”
Mindful parenting. In a second presentation the following day, Myla Kabat-Zinn teamed with her husband to speak on “Mindful Parenting: Nurturing Our Children, Growing Ourselves.” Their purpose was not to turn all parents present into meditators—Jon has a formal meditation practice while Myla does not—but rather to suggest ways to bring mindfulness to the everyday challenges of raising a child.
“There is no such thing as a catechism when it comes to mindful parenting,” they said. And “practicing mindful parenting doesn’t mean we’ll be better than other parents, or we’ll always be mindful, or our kids will never suffer. It doesn’t mean we’re always calm, and never angry. Sometimes we get angry—but the awareness isn’t angry; it can hold the anger with some kindness.”
They suggested that parents cultivate huge amounts of spaciousness and humor; that they learn to notice the tension in their own bodies when a child is upset, to be aware of their fearful feelings and their anxious or angry thoughts and to practice tuning into their interior selves to maintain calm, understanding and kindness.
Every child comes with special needs, said Myla. “A child [who is acting out] is not doing so on purpose. Some children have fewer coping mechanisms, less resilience.”The couple suggested three reminders that may be helpful to parents in a demanding situation:
- sovereignty: remembering the child’s true nature
- acceptance: actively engaging with the situation as it is, and sincerely attempting to come to terms with it and understand
- empathy: feeling with the child, who is likely to be physically or emotionally stressed if he or she is being difficult
“It is not about fixing,” they urged. “But things may need to be repaired. The relationship may need to be repaired.”
Other speakers at the conference addressed mindfulness in school settings, its effectiveness for treating attention disorders, cultivating presence in autistic children and mindfulness-based interventions for high-risk adolescents, among other topics.