Mind with Heart is a secular education charity, founded by professionals working in mainstream education. One of our aims is to give teenagers the opportunity to reflect on
wellbeing and its causes, and what it means to be flourishing human being.
Our view that happiness is found in our mind, in subjective experience, and not in outer circumstances of the ‘material world’. In western educational terms, this view means seeing mental wellbeing and emotional health the key to human flourishing.
This principle of human flourishing or ‘happiness’ requires one important clarification. There are two types of happiness. One is based more on the physical senses, you could call it ‘pleasure’; it’s about getting good stuff from ‘outside’, from the world. This search for sensory wellbeing the Ancient Greeks called Hedonism.
The second type of happiness comes from cultivating ‘inner values’, or qualities of mind. This is not so much about what happens to us, but rather what attitudes we bring to situations. In other words, we look to our inner qualities for wellbeing. This search for human flourishing the Ancient Greeks called Eudaimonia. About the etymology of this word, ”eu’ means good, or well and ‘daimon’ – like ‘demon’, ‘spirit’, ‘esprit’ in French, or mind – means an immaterial guiding consciousness. So Eudaimonia means ‘well spirit’. It’s this type of happiness that we are referring to when we talk about Human Flourishing.
Mind with Heart offers trainings to staff, accompanying schools in their culture-shift towards whole-school wellbeing and emotional health
The lack of Eudaimonia or ‘well mind’ is increasingly manifest in our schools, and the education system at large. Mind With Heart works principally with secondary schools – teenagers, 11 – 18 years, and their educators. The sufferings we witness on the rise are mental sufferings – anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and loneliness. These are pervasive and often crippling.
But where do they come from? And why are they on the rise?
From a Buddhist psychological perspective, these mental sufferings are exacerbated by the assumed and unexamined values of the current education paradigm – namely, materialism. We study to get a good job, to find out more about the physical world in order to be able to make life easier, more fun and satisfying. Materialism channels our desires towards hedonistic pursuits. We assume that juicy hamburgers, smooth iPhones or the excitement of the latest hyped film are the source of continuous happiness. Sure, the pleasure derived from the senses is, from a Buddhist point of view, not a problem in itself. However, without wisdom it is so easy to fixate on [and become attached to] the quest for hedonic ‘hits’. This is a sure way on to the consumerist treadmill that, the faster it goes, becomes ever more difficult to get off.
Consumerism is not only devastating for the sustainability of the planet and its resources but also it undermines our inner capacities for fulfilment, engraining, as it does, habits of lack and grasping.
William James Thomas Huxley
How did we get ourselves into this situation? Some of the views that we take for unquestionable truth have their own histories and were established by the energy of certain individuals. Our assumptions that materialism is the view of modernity, for example, evolved from a very effective campaign by one man, Thomas Huxley, who, towards the end of the nineteenth century, conflated materialistic belief (that human behaviour is determined solely by physical causes) with scientific knowledge. He successfully advocated that science must only be practised within the framework of materialism.
Materialism was victorious over those who believed that the mind – and how it subjectively perceives – plays a vital role in our understanding of the world and that contemplative enquiry can be compatible with scientific method. William James – often called the ‘father of American psychology’ – championed the central role of the mind; he stated that geniuses had the ability to sustain attention longer than the rest of us. Bringing back wandering attention is, he said, the very root of character and that improving attention would be the best education. However, he was not aware of any methods that could bring this improvement about.
If materialism was a done deal, and the resultant suffering inevitable, then we would be obliged to accept it. But this is not the case. What might have happened if William James’ view had dominated during the 20th century?
The causes of happiness, from a Buddhist perspective, can be categorised into the three higher trainings. These are ethics [behaviour], samadhi [meditative stability] and wisdom.
Buddhist ethics share with other systems of ethics the principle of the Golden Rule, often formulated as ‘Do onto others as you would like them to do to you’. This principle, Karen Armstrong (founder of the Charter for Compassion) says, is central to all major religious traditions and ethical systems.
Before we look into samadhi, let’s see how wisdom could be at the heart of our education system.
Wisdom is the precise discernment of phenomena (both physical and mental) – knowing how they appear and knowing their nature. Modern ‘Western’ education may have lost sight of this goal, but wisdom was central in ancient Indian education. One of the largest education establishments in ancient Indian, flourishing from around 500 CE, was Nalanda. At Nalanda, all studied subjects fed into and flowed out of wisdom.
Four main areas of study formed the curriculum: Logic & maths, medicine & natural science, language & music, and creativity (including art and engineering). These four areas are not too different from the range of subjects that teenagers study today, but this wholistic approach, where study of diverse phenomena is orientated towards inner wisdom, is mainly absent in contemporary curricula.
HH Dalai Lama is critical of the modern education system, saying that it focuses too much on material values, and not enough on cultivating ‘inner values’.
Having said this, great efforts have been made to champion education of the ‘whole person’. One example is the International Baccalaureate (IB). If we look at the IB learner profile, we see that Inquiry, Knowledge, Open-Mindedness, Balance and Care are all valued, at least in theory. Yet there is often a gap between the values a school promotes on its website and what the school [with myriad pressures and competing priorities] manges to deliver.
It seems that schools often need commitment at senior management level and a sustained education in tools for cultivating inner values for school culture to change.
Where Knowledge and Inquiry are valued, the is also recognition that non-distraction and the ability to focus is necessary.
Here we come to samadhi. And this is where the modern mindfulness movement is making a very positive contribution to secular society. We, the public, have recognised that restlessness and anxiety are caused by our inability to sit quietly, as the 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal says, in a room by ourselves. Mindfulness, the cultivation of mental stability and a mind less fixated on the movement of thoughts and emotions, is the cultivation of samadhi, even if, in most of our cases, these are baby-steps.
To communicate to teens the value of cultivating mental stability, we often use the example of Galileo, an example given by Alan Wallace. [Wallace is a great meditation scholar-practitioner in the Buddhist tradition with a keen interest in science. Those who know his work will recognise many of the themes expressed here.] Galileo was one of the first to use a telescope (starting with lenses that magnified just three times) to observe the outer phenomena of the night’s sky. By making accurate and replicable observations he showed that the planet Venus had phases and thus rotated round the Sun, not the Earth. With this empirical evidence he overturned centuries of dogma and assumed knowledge. Since then, Hubble, around 100 years ago, using the latest technology, found several galaxies – not just the few thousand stars that Galileo observed.
And now, with the Hubble space telescope, scientists tell us that there are 100 billion galaxies in the universe, each with 100 billion stars. The number of stars hasn’t changed much, but our ability to observe them has developed enormously. Using a stable, clear instrument we see much more clearly what is already there.
In the same way, if we stablise and clarify the mind, we can come to know ourselves more deeply and thereby align our understanding with the nature of ‘reality’.
In Mind With Heart, we also use the metaphor of the snake that helps teens see why understanding ourselves could be useful. Imagine you are on holiday somewhere hot and are heading back to the place you are staying. It’s dark and the path in unfamiliar. Suddenly, you see something in the corner: Help! it’s a huge snake. You panic and think you are about to be bitten and die of poisoning. At that moment your friend whips out his new phone and shines its flashlight on the snake. It’s not a snake at all; it’s a coil of rope. Your panic subsides and you sigh with relief.
Your panic was real and really made you suffer; but it was founded on a fallacy, a misunderstanding. When the misunderstanding is removed, the suffering dissolves. In a similar way, might not many of the mental sufferings we experience be soothed when we come to see more clearly how our mind works?
I would therefore suggest that the lack of genuine happiness experienced in our schools is caused by materialism and the accompanying fixation on ‘external’ phenomena as an assumed source of happiness. Happiness is experienced in the mind, and is caused by cultivating inner qualities and inner values (e.g. non-distraction, clarity, kindness and compassion). This needs to be the starting point for a healthy education system. There is nothing new here. The question now is ‘How do we put this into practice, and make an education of the heart and mind a priority?’
Many individuals have aligned their work with spreading wisdom and compassion in secular European society. Here is a sampling of projects in the field of education.
– For the Mind & Life institute, Katherine Weare is forming the Community on Contemplative Education (CCE). Its aim is to explore and disseminate key insights and best practices in the field of contemplative education.
– The FPMT have the Foundation for Developing Compassion and Wisdom (FDCW), like Mind with Heart developing secular programmes and resources based on universal human values.
– The Novak Djokovic Foundation has funded the implementation of Goldie Hawn’s MindUp programme in several schools in Serbia.
– Perhaps the most widely used mindfulness programme in schools is ‘.b’, developed by the Mindfulness in Schools Project. The MYRIAD project is using .b as a Mindfulness Training intervention; it is researching how schools prepare young people to improve resilience and manage their emotional health in the UK.
– Empathy & Compassion in Society organises Youth Gatherings at conferences where leading scientists, thinkers and change-makers address the role of compassion in society. The resulting videos, for example of Paul Gilbert on his compassion research, are viewable via Mind with Heart’s YouTube channel.
These are just a few examples of charitable initiatives.
A theatre-full of teenagers listening to Scilla Elworthy and other change-makers at Mind with Heart’s recent Youth Gathering in Oslo
On a governmental level, the Mindfulness Initiative is helping legislators ‘make capacities of heart and mind serious considerations of public policy’. The Mindful Nation UK report identifies four areas that mindfulness can be brought into society – the health, education, and criminal justice systems and the workplace. The modern mindfulness movement is perhaps the most successful vehicle for bringing the wise and compassionate tools of Buddhism into a secular society. Not only is the language secular and addressing contemporary needs and context but also its claims for improving attention skills and reducing stress are corroborated by scientific research, a strong currency in contemporary secular society.
Mind with Heart was founded by a bunch of idealists – people who believe that our education system should reflect the full spectrum of experience: humanity’s deepest wishes for flourishing,the complex relationships between us all, and the infinite interconnections between humansity and the planet we all call home.
But idealism is not enough, and so we aim to accompany schools in wise and practical steps to impact whole-school culture, taking care of senior management and teachers first, discovering the value of mindfulness and awareness for oneself. And only then, when teachers can model these qualities, do we recommend that schools pass understanding and practice on to students. When teachers are modelling and embodying mindfulness, awareness, empathy and compassion, students reap the benefits.
As part of Mind with Heart’s trainings, educators explore creative and playful ways of sharing tools for cultivating emotional intelligence
About the effects of practising mindfulness during their lunch break, two teachers report…
“the kids came back into the room and there was a change in the air: ‘What have you done? Where have you been?’ They instantly knew something was different. And in turn, the way they interacted with us was more positive so we got more out of them…. This might sound a bit strange, but it creates more a fun, upbeat atmosphere, not so regimented ‘this is what we are doing… blah blah blah…’ boring. One of kids said the other day they didn’t even realise they were learning…. And for us, it’s not about teaching; it’s just about engaging and being present.”
Along with three partners, Mind With Heart has just completed a major research project on teacher wellbeing in Australia. The departments of education in Queensland and New South Wales recruited 20 schools. Teachers Health funded the project. Mind with Heart delivered the intervention and the Australian Catholic University conducted the evaluation.
Teachers received an 8-week course focusing on their own wellbeing. The researchers were asking two questions: Does mindfulness practice boost teacher wellbeing? and Does teacher wellbeing improve student wellbeing and student learning? The research will be published in June 2018.
A good example of the Mind with Heart whole-school-approach can be found in the work of Moissac college, near Toulouse, one of the most disadvantaged secondary schools in the region. Twenty teachers, with the support of the head, decided to make a shift in school culture and trained in our programmes over three years. Participating teachers reorganised the timetable to in order to be able to teach all students in their first year at the school.
Research carried out by the University of Montpellier on these pupils found the impact to be on cognitive, relational and emotional levels. They reported that students were more at ease when they did not know the answer, were less rigid in their thinking and more connected to other people and to nature.
Making the case for schools to prioritize teacher wellbeing is crucial. When schools see investment in staff wellbeing as a sustainable approach to student wellbeing, then school culture starts to change. Sure, mindfulness helps students relax, stay focused and, as a result, boosts their attainment. But mindfulness exercises only really make sense longterm if it permeates the school, prioritising human flourishing above all else, and moving the paradigm away from an infatuation with materialism towards the cultivation of inner values and prioritisation of wisdom.
Living with mindfulness, awareness and compassion are not tools to accomplish something else; they are an understanding of the truth of things, and an expression of this understanding.