How long can the average person survive without eating? The answer: 21 days.
How long can the average person survive without drinking? 3 days.
But how long can the average person survive without breathing? 3 minutes.
Breath is life. It sustains life, but it also influences and directs how we live. Let me explain:
Several years ago I directed a program that brought together Israeli and Palestinian teenagers for dialogue and leadership building in Canada. These teens arrived from hard hit areas like Jenin in the Palestinian West Bank and Sderot Israel, and spent weeks boarding with each other. They had seen the worst of the conflict; some had lost friends, others had experienced violence and were living in fear -- and as a result, harbored animosity and even hatred towards one other.
Dialogue sessions were heated and intense, but I noticed that every time we'd start a session with a 5 minute meditation, the conversation was always more productive. Voices were calmer, opinions more balanced and level headed, and we were able to make progress and reach understandings that just weren't possible otherwise.
This simple act of breathing mindfully had a remarkable effect.
Over the last 30 years we have forgotten how to breathe as a society. The pace of technological advancement is so fast; there's so much information to consume, things to do, people to tweet and places to be that we don't know how to just sit and relax. We're in a perpetual race of trying to catch up with all the craziness that is.
We've become masters of navigating the world "out there" with our technologies and smartphones but have forgotten how to navigate the world "in here"; the inner world of emotion and being, focus and reflection. Our value center has shifted from the "heart" - once believed to be the seat of human life - to the mind and the intellect, and this widening gulf between heart and head has led to a number of social ills. I'll list a few:
1) Depression and anxiety are on the rise along with the use of antidepressants.
2) Higher stress levels have led to increased heart attacks, cardiovascular disease and other stress related disorders.
3) Marriage rates are down as singles don't have the wherewithal to be in a committed relationship, deal with adversity and cope with difficult emotions.
4) Suicide rates have increased by 60% worldwide in the last 45 years. In fact suicide is now among the three leading causes of death among those aged 15-44 (male and female). In the U.S. more people die of suicide than in car accidents.
5) People are less empathic.When so much of our communication is online, it's hard to pick up on emotional cues and see how our words and actions affect other people (online bullying being a case in point). This leads to decreased empathy and to an erosion of emotional intelligence.
Now don't get me wrong, there are wonderful things about technology and the human mind. But my point is that we need to balance the amount of time we spend using our intellect with the amount of time we spend paying attention to the actual person who is doing the thinking and judging and analyzing; that person whose inner life bubbles with ideas and emotions, aversions and desires. Namely YOU.
If you grew up before the internet and the iPhone then you may remember what living below the head feels like. People born after the mid-90's, however, don't have this luxury. They need to be taught how to look inward and not just outward; how to pay attention to their emotions, thought processes, reactions, and internal dialogue.
How can we teach kids to develop these essential life skills? It's time to take a breath...
The Hawn Foundation is doing just this. By bringing mindfulness into the classroom through their MindUP program, the foundation is teaching kids how to manage stress, regulate their emotions and cultivate a mind that can retain knowledge and be more productive. Through simple breathing exercises called 'brain breaks' (2-3 minutes of deep belly breathing) the program has contributed to less aggression in schools, reduced absenteeism, and improved math and reading scores. Kids are less fidgety, more focused, healthier and happier. The results are astounding!
Other organizations like Mindfulness Without Bordersare using similar techniques to develop 'an intelligence of the heart' in the world's youth. Through breathing and guided meditation, kids learn how to prevent conflict, build empathy and bolster their emotional development and critical thinking.
Now here's the billion dollar question: with all this success and proven benefit, why isn't mindfulness mainstream? Why hasn't mindfulness become a staple in our education system right up there with math and science? I find it odd that we expect our children to be focused, calm and resilient and yet we create an environment that makes that virtually impossible (with all the artificial stimulation and distraction out there) and do little to equip them with tools for succeeding in the real world.
The truth is that facts and figures can be learned at the click of a button. You can Google them. But focus, which helps kids learn facts and figure out what to do with them takes a whole different approach to education. After all, learning is not just about retaining knowledge, it's about understanding how to relate that knowledge to other people in a meaningful way. And you can't do that if you are distracted, stressed or lack emotional intelligence.
As the French philosopher Blaise Pascal once said: 'All man's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.'
Let's teach our kids how to sit quietly in a room alone so they can thrive in the classroom and lead healthy happy lives, and let's empower the organizations and people that are helping them do just this.
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