Us­ing an­cient ways to deal with mod­ern prob­lems

Mind­ful­ness is still boom­ing but some are be­gin­ning to cot­ton on to an­cient tra­di­tions

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Health Mindfullness - loulourose.net Dar­ragh Mur­phy

The decade-old Ir­ish mind­ful­ness boom shows no sign of abat­ing, yet some lead­ing ex­po­nents are be­gin­ning to cot­ton on to what Bud­dhist prac­ti­tion­ers have been say­ing for thou­sands of years. Mind­ful­ness alone, with­out en­gag­ing the emo­tions, can lead to a sort of emo­tional alien­ation.

“There can be a lack of warmth with just do­ing mind­ful­ness,” says Louise Shanagher, a qual­i­fied psy­chol­o­gist who holds cre­ative mind­ful­ness work­shops for schools. “Hav­ing a kind at­ti­tude to­wards your­self is just as im­por­tant as pay­ing mind­ful at­ten­tion. The two need to go hand in hand.”

One in five Ir­ish peo­ple say they care for or are re­lated to some­one with a men­tal health prob­lem. Ire­land has the fourth high­est teenage sui­cide rate out of 31 Euro­pean coun­tries and clin­i­cians and psy­chol­o­gists are in­creas­ingly seek­ing to find a bet­ter way of com­bat­ing this mount­ing men­tal ill­ness epi­demic.

Draw­ing on her ex­pe­ri­ence in coun­selling adults and teenagers, of­ten from dif­fi­cult back­grounds, Shanagher has taken a pre­ven­tion ap­proach.

“Work­ing in adult and teenage psy­chother­apy, it re­ally hit home how big an is­sue de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety have be­come. I felt that this needs to be ad­dressed at an ear­lier stage, and I thought, why is no­body do­ing it for kids?

“I was amazed and frus­trated that we don’t teach chil­dren how to man­age their emo­tions. It seems re­ally ob­vi­ous, and we’d reap re­wards in so­ci­ety in so many ways if we in­vested in this area for chil­dren. The reper­cus­sions would be far-reach­ing.”

Sat­is­fac­tion lev­els

In­deed, a re­cent study by Richard La­yard at the London School of Eco­nomics sug­gests that emo­tional well­be­ing in child­hood is more im­por­tant to an adult’s sat­is­fac­tion lev­els than aca­demic suc­cess or wealth.

The re­search found that a child’s emo­tional health – both while young and af­ter­wards – is far more im­por­tant to their sat­is­fac­tion lev­els as an adult than other fac­tors, such as if they achieve aca­demic suc­cess when young, or fi­nan­cial wealth when older. The study found that a per­son’s in­come only ex­plains about 1 per cent of the vari­a­tion in life sat­is­fac­tion among peo­ple in the UK.

Other re­search by Sonja Lyubomirsky of the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia in­di­cates that we can con­trol 40 per cent of our hap­pi­ness by our ac­tions and at­ti­tudes. Yet so­ci­ety is geared around the premise that ful­fil­ment is pred­i­cated upon grades, ma­te­rial goods, wealth and ro­mance. Re­ori­en­tat­ing the State’s ed­u­ca­tional re­sources to re­flect new ev­i­dence is a tall or­der, she says.

“We don’t teach chil­dren to be happy,” Shanagher adds. “We teach peo­ple how to have a ca­reer. We don’t dis­cuss how we re­late to our­selves, in our re­la­tion­ships and in terms of how we in­ter­act with our en­vi­ron­ment, our emo­tions and how our brain works.

“We can un­der­stand that from a sci­en­tific point of view, but it’s usu­ally not ex­plained from an ex­pe­ri­en­tial point of view. I was re­cently teach­ing mind­ful­ness to a group, and they all seemed to have a very harsh in­ner critic – an in­ner bully. What we try and do is en­cour­age chil­dren to have kind­ness and com­pas­sion to­wards them­selves.”

On her web­site, Shanagher has made lessons plans for the So­cial Per­sonal and Health Ed­u­ca­tion cur­ricu­lum in schools. she has also de­signed a mind­ful­ness course for Athlone IT, where she is an as­so­ciate lec­turer, for the 2017-18 year. Af­ter com­plet­ing a Mas­ter’s in or­gan­i­sa­tional psy­chol­ogy, the 32-year-old first be­gan prac­tis­ing the mind­ful­ness of breath­ing and Metta Bha­vana med­i­ta­tions at the Dublin Bud­dhist Cen­tre. She also ex­plored other tra­di­tions, be­fore mov­ing into more mind­ful­ness as an in­ter­ven­tion.

The teenagers she dealt with had the full spec­trum of mod­ern so­cial prob­lems. “I re­ally felt that it would have been so much bet­ter if they had had some help ear­lier in life,” she re­calls. “A lot of their prob­lems were al­ready so in­grained.

“I started with the chil­dren’s cre­ative med­i­ta­tion classes. I want to help in nor­mal­is­ing our in­ner world, our thoughts and feel­ings, our strug­gles – teach­ing chil­dren ef­fec­tive tools to man­age is­sues in their life.”

To­gether with Rose Fin­nerty, Shanagher has writ­ten chil­dren’s books. Their first – It’s Al­ways There - con­cen­trates on the mind­ful­ness of breath­ing med­i­ta­tions and body med­i­ta­tion. Where Is Happy? con­cen­trates on self-com­pas­sion, kind­ness, and self-es­teem, Look Who’s Here deals with emo­tions.

Con­tested ground

Where Is Happy? con­tains a lot of pos­i­tive self-talk for kids. But this is con­tested ground. The self-es­teem move­ment – be­gat by the dis­cred­ited Cal­i­for­nia politi­cian John “Vasco” Vas­con­cel­los in the 1980s – has been crit­i­cised for fu­elling an un­re­al­is­tic view of life in chil­dren, cos­set­ting them from real life through grade in­fla­tion and “un­con­di­tional pos­i­tive re­gard” re­gard­less of be­hav­iour or ap­pli­ca­tion.

Shanagher painstak­ingly re­futes the no­tion that her so­lu­tion to chil­dren’s men­tal health is self-es­teem. She points out that ac­cep­tance of, and pos­i­tiv­ity to­wards oth­ers of­ten starts with self-ac­cep­tance, not self-es­teem. In a world where we are only be­gin­ning to see the ef­fects of mo­bile on­line tech­nol­ogy on men­tal health, it’s in­creas­ingly per­ti­nent.

“The book is mainly about self-com­pas­sion. Where Is Happy? also in­tro­duces other tools that pro­mote well­be­ing, these are power pos­ing, us­ing pos­i­tive af­fir­ma­tions and mir­ror work. Our book fo­cuses on ac­cept­ing even the not-so-good parts. A lot of the is­sues in the self-es­teem move­ment are about deny­ing the un­sat­is­fac­tory parts.

“It’s about ac­cept­ing your­self just as you are – ‘I’m per­fect just as I am’. Lots of chil­dren now are on their iPhones, iso­lated from their en­vi­ron­ment. These days it’s not enough to be good, you must be bet­ter than oth­ers. But we’re all above-av­er­age at some things and be­low-av­er­age at oth­ers.”

In­deed, child psy­chol­o­gists have ques­tioned the very idea of a “gifted child”, she says, and are call­ing on chil­dren to be praised for ef­fort – an ap­proach which al­lows for fail­ure, and en­cour­ages learn­ing new skills.

“We have to bal­ance self-es­teem with self-com­pas­sion, and ex­tend that out to oth­ers. Even for healthy peo­ple, we’re all deal­ing with our mind, but it’s a strug­gle for every­one in some ways – even if we don’t talk about it. But we can talk about it.”

‘‘ A re­cent study by Richard La­yard at the London School of Eco­nomics sug­gests that emo­tional well­be­ing in child­hood is more im­por­tant to an adult’s sat­is­fac­tion lev­els than aca­demic suc­cess or wealth

Psyschol­o­gist and mind­ful­ness teacher Louise Shanagher (left), with artist Rose Fin­nerty of Tales Lou Lou Rose

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