Mindful awareness: teaching students to observe their thoughts

Mindfulness with Amy Malloy

This is the next instalment in our blog series on Mindfulness in the Classroom by Amy Malloy.  So far we’ve looked at the automatic pilot mind state and learning to focus attention on the present moment. We’ve also explored the practicalities of setting up mindfulness practice in schools and the barriers you might face along the way. The next step is to explore mindful awareness and what happens when students become more skilled at focusing their attention on their breath or on parts of the body.

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Discovering mindful awareness

If you’ve been practising counting the breaths with your students for a few weeks and they are starting to notice more about their thoughts or their physical sensations, it’s about time to look at the next skill: mindful awareness. 

Imagine you are seeing something for the first time. Our eyes and minds first take in the larger picture before becoming aware of finer and finer detail, depending on how long you have to look at it. It’s a bit like when you first step into a dark room, you can’t see anything, but after a while your eyes begin to adjust and you start to make out more of your surroundings.

Mindful awareness is the same: the clarity of what we are focusing on grows the more we focus on it. We then need to learn to sit with the breath and observe what we see, rather than jumping in and following the thoughts that we are now more aware of. 

Thoughts are not fact

Our thoughts can feel very real to us – and thoughts about a situation can define it for us. Often, what we assume to be the facts of a situation is often our interpretation of it. 

Mindful awareness in the classroom

Imagine you’re sitting in a coffee shop waiting for a friend to join you. If they arrive on time, you carry on and have a nice time together. If they are late, on the other hand, your expectation is that they should be there. Your thoughts compare the current reality with what you were expecting it to be. Suddenly it doesn’t feel like a comfortable situation anymore. 

Yet, the only thing about the situation to have changed are your thoughts and feelings about it. You are influenced by your comparison of how things should be (i.e. your friend was meant to have arrived already) and how they really are. 

Our thoughts establish a ‘fact’ – that the first situation is it is positive. In the second situation, we establish the ‘fact’ that it’s negative. The truth is, we are viewing the situation through a lens of interpretation. The lens changes depending on our mood or what has happened before. As a result, it affects how we relate to the present moment. 

We might then respond impulsively to that present moment based on our interpretation of it, rather than seeing things as they actually are. 

How we can observe without reacting

The next level in mindful awareness is being able to sit and observe our thoughts and feelings at any moment in time, without reacting. 

First, we need to notice our lens. Then, in time, we can learn to make a more informed decision about how to respond. If we are feeling angry or stressed, we can recognize this and allow it to come and go, before rashly taking action. We shouldn’t assume that being angry or stressed is the only option available to us. 

The importance of being patient 

If you have just started learning to focus on your breath, you won’t be ready to start simply observing thoughts, or won’t find it that easy to do. 

That’s why patience and consistency are key. In the same way your body can’t run a marathon without training, your mind can’t immediately become mindfully aware. However, you will experience reality differently and more healthily the further along the mindfulness journey you go. 

It’s important to remember that we shouldn’t think of thoughts or feelings are not right or wrong. Instead, we should consider our relationship with our thoughts and feelings. 

In mindful awareness, we are allowing what is to simply be, and allowing ourselves to observe it as it is without panicking. 

How to introduce mindful awareness to students

There are two effective meditations you can try with your students: 

Thought clouds

  • Invite your students to close their eyes, or softly gaze at the floor/desk in front of them. 
  • Invite them to take ten breaths in and out, counting and watching each one. 
  • Remind them that it’s okay if their mind wanders. They simply need to bring it back when they notice and carry on where they left off. 
  • Invite them to imagine their mind like a blue sky. They are lying on the nice ground (maybe grass in the park or a beach) and looking up at it. Whenever a thought passes into their mind, invite them to imagine it like a cloud floating across the sky. They stay where they are watching the sky, and the cloud simply passes across and out of their vision. 
  • Maybe another thought comes. This can also pop on to a cloud and they can watch it pass away when it is ready. 

Sound meditation 

  • Invite your students to close their eyes, or softly gaze at the floor/desk in front of them. 
  • Invite them to take ten breaths in and out, counting and watching each one. 
  • Remind them that it’s okay if their mind wanders, they simply need to bring it back when they notice and carry on where they left off.
  • Invite them to start noticing what sounds they can hear around them, both outside the room and inside. 
  • Rather than labelling the sound as ‘car’ or ‘bird’, invite them to notice if the sounds are loud or quiet, sharp and irregular, or slow and consistent. What direction is the sound coming from? Is it high pitch or low pitch? Can they notice any silence or space between the sounds? 
  • Invite them to simply watch the sounds coming and going, without attaching labels. 
  • After five minutes (or less if they are distracted), invite them to open their eyes and talk about what they noticed. 

How can mindful awareness helps students

Thoughts can feel all-consuming for our younger students – especially when they’re facing exams or nearing adolescence. 

Observing their thoughts and feelings coming and going over time, rather than getting caught up in them, teaches them to be resilient in difficult or stressful situations. It teaches them to take a step back when they feel overwhelmed or anxious, and see the thoughts not as fact, but as something they can choose whether or not to listen to. 

The more aware your students are of their feelings, the more control they have over their relationship with them. This in time leads us on to the next skill – acceptance of whatever we find in the present moment, and a calmer approach to challenges in general. 

More on this next time!  

Discover more about Mindfulness on our Experiences page

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