Practice English Speaking&Listening with: Mindfulness in Schools: Richard Burnett at TEDxWhitechapel

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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."


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.


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.


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.


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?"


"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" -


"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 -


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.


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.



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.


The Description of Mindfulness in Schools: Richard Burnett at TEDxWhitechapel