The one of the continuing themes of these blogs is the importance of stress control. This is particularly critical for children raised in chaotic, abusive environments. By remaining calm they have a much better chance of making good decisions. In previous Newsletters (Teaching Practical Boundaries 21st July 2017 and Boundary Considerations 22nd October 2018) I have discussed the value of boundaries and how to engage them. This is relevant for teachers as well as students. One of the central elements in making good decisions is the ability to remain calm.
Very briefly, boundaries should be applied when we begin to feel stressed, it protects us from reactive thinking. As soon as we sense that feeling of unease, the application of your boundary protects you, that is allows you to stay calm, to relax. It is well understood that this composure plays a significant role in this process. However, when anything is unearthed to assist people negotiate their way through difficult times it is only a matter of time before this ability is high-jacked and morphed into a self-help industry; the ‘next big thing’ to solve all society’s ills. If you extend the efforts to remain calm you inevitably arrive in the area of meditation and this is proving to be ‘the next big thing’.
This latest and most powerful expression of this new panacea for our behavioural problems is the Mindfulness Based Stress-Reduction program (MBSR); a systematized approach to meditation. This practice has really come out of the work of Richard Davidson who studied with Buddhist meditation practitioners. It has long been understood that the constant exposure to high levels of stress create changes in the brain’s structure. Things like an expanded and more sensitive amygdala, a reduction in the hippocampus, the prefrontal lobes, the cerebellum and the corpus callosum, all of which hinder the individual’s capacity to use their cognitive ability to address the problems that cause the stress. There was an almost opposite impact on the brains of individuals who practiced meditation. In these monks, the amygdala was reduced making them more resilient to stress. The increased size of the frontal lobes and hippocampus enhanced the cognitive capacity of the brain.
Davidson’s work was subjected to some criticism but subsequent studies have confirmed his findings. In recent years Jon Kabat-Zinn has systematized the approach with his trade mark MBSR where through his organisation the eight-week program is disseminated across the globe; being used in schools, the military, corporations, etc. and is so programmed the Buddhist teacher Miles Neale refers to it as McMindfulness.
MBSR is just the latest addition of a whole industry of happiness. It has become a $40 Billion industry with over 60,000 books on the subject being offered by Amazon alone. Every year we have a ‘Happiness Conference’ where for a substantial amount of money you can learn how to fix your world.
If you sense a bit of cynicism here you would be right. I have no trouble with meditation and you know I endorse teaching these kids to relax. If nothing else I firmly believe the control of stress, the elimination of it is at the heart of all behaviour management programs and teaching practices. But there is a difference between staying calm while you examine ‘what is really going on’ in your environment and focusing so hard on controlling your internal world discounting what is going on in your external world to cause your stress. If you are about to be abused it is of little value to slip into deep meditation.
What underpins MBSR is that any stress you experience comes from inside you and it is your responsibility to deal with it and if you don’t it will only be a result of your poor choices. This is a cruel message to give to kids who have been raised in an abusive/neglectful family. It is obviously unkind to tell them that all they have to do is meditate to be fulfilled in such an environment, their fear and resultant stress may well be keeping them alive but the more damaging element is by telling them it is ‘really their fault’ if they don’t take control of their life reinforces their sense of toxic shame – they know they are faulty!
But I digress, as stated above the ability to stay calm is fundamental to having good boundaries and using meditation will help these students experience some degree of remediation of their cognitive structures. However, we should never lose sight of their suffering and should work towards changing their environment as much as, if not more than changing their response to it.
For students with backgrounds of abuse and neglect the process for relaxation is very threatening. To relax, you need to focus on your internal world, limiting your attention on the stimulus that flows in from the external world. A feature of these students is that they are always scanning their outer zone looking for potential dangers. This hypervigilance, a trademark of PTSD has been crucial to ensure their survival. Now we are going to ask them to take the focus away from the very practice that aided that existence and to go inside their minds.
A complication is that when we get these students to focus on their internal world we are asking them to attend to their sense of self and for most it is to examine their toxic shame. As we have discussed earlier, this toxic shame reinforces their sense of being a failure. This self-reflection seems hardly a practice that will help them develop a new approach to their behaviour but it is a crucial part of their recovery.
Finally, the process of meditation becomes even more difficult when you attempt to conduct relaxation sessions in a group setting, especially if that group consists of students with similar histories. In my experience, you need to limit the opportunity for each student to communicate with others. To teach meditation in such an environment you need to be aware that all the class will be anxious when they are asked to sacrifice their protective hypervigilance and to avoid this they will attempt to sabotage the teacher’s efforts. This is a real difficulty that can be overcome.
In my last school for these kids I used to teach them a bit of meditation (I have uploaded an essay on meditation with a script for meditation that you could use). These were very ‘tough’ kids and I would often have as many as thirty at a time. Before we commenced the meditation, I explained what the process involved, what happened during the process and how that would benefit them. Of course, this information was included during their lessons in how the brain works, part of their recovery curriculum.
I found a few rules help conduct the meditation lessons. I allowed them to lie on their stomachs with their face down. I also was aware that some would try to break the desired atmosphere by making a noise, coughing, sighing and even the occasional noisy ‘expression of wind’. I understood the calm environment threatened them and if they replaced this with behaviour that upset the class they would feel more comfortable. This was common when students first came into the program.
The process was that I would read a script, the same every morning and if a student acted in a way that would upset the process they were quietly removed from the room. When I had completed the script, those students who participated moved onto the next activity. The students, who were removed were then returned to the class to have the script read to them again.
At this time, I would tell them that I could not make them relax, I explained that I understood they felt threatened but I insisted that they should not spoil the process for others. Eventually the students would sit through a complete ‘reading’ and then they could return to their class. I was surprised that after a time, students asked for the relaxation activity.
Working with these kids will provide you with lots of life lessons not the least of which is there is no ‘silver bullet’ to solve human suffering, theirs or yours, but as long as you keep learning and moving forward you and your students will move towards that state of authenticity and peace.