Among Philosophers of Happiness there are two ways to answer the question 'What is happiness?' The first is to say that happiness is an emotion. The second is to say that happiness is a state of mind.
Say those for whom the first seems the more intuitive answer, that to increase ones level of happiness, one should do more of the things that make one feel happy, and one should avoid doing the things that make one feel miserable.
Say those for whom the second seems the more intuitive answer, that to increase ones level of happiness, one should do more of the things that cause one's mind to maintain an affective state of happiness. That is to say, one should train the mind to be happy regardless of what is occurring at the emotional level.
The roots of Mindfulness are deep in the soil of the second example. Mindfulness is not a way to make one feel happy. It is a way to train the mind to be happy regardless of what is occurring at the emotional level.
This old idea is so often misunderstood and thus overlooked when attempts are made to include mindfulness in pastoral care or classroom routines.
Even those who 'get it' occasionally make the mistake of linking mindfulness with elements of positive psychology.
A child is upset. She has tripped and grazed her knee, the same knee she grazed only days ago and now the scab has opened. Her emotional state is clearly sadness, probably a little fear and embarrassment too. She feels a physical pain on her knee and maybe some heat in her cheeks and tension in her jaw.
Enter 'positive psychology mindfulness':
"You're okay, don't worry, just breathe deeply. Imagine your sad feeling is in a balloon, floating away out of sight. Keep imagining it floating away and soon you will be happy again."
This kind advice supposes that happiness can only happen once the pain and sadness have gone away. That pain and sadness are impediments to happiness. That happiness feels peaceful and is without blood and tears.
Enter mindfulness as it is:
"I can see that you're sad, and perhaps a little scared too. Does your face feel hot? That's okay, this is how it feels when something painful happens. Let's wait patiently together and see how long it lasts."
Though both approaches may indeed help, only the second is teaching mindfulness.
And that is important, because if we accept that mindfulness means training the brain to no longer pass judgement over the feelings we perceive to be negative. If we accept that real peace means being present with what is, neither wanting things to be different nor wanting them to remain the same. If we accept that progress has nothing to do with what we are feeling but only with how we react to it.
Then moments of sadness, pain and fear are really the best times to practice mindfulness.
This reminds me of a story I once heard about a man who had a fear of heights. A kind friend offered to teach the man a simple trick. "All you have to do," he said, "is not look down."
"Wow," thought the man, "that is a simple trick."
He was very grateful and for the next three weeks he didn't look down once. Not even to tie his shoes. If he had to pick something up he would calmly bend his knees and use his hands to locate the item, even if it took minutes he remained disciplined, acutely aware that he was to observe the instructions of his friend to conquer his fear of heights.
After three weeks the man was feeling supremely confident. So confident in fact that he decided to take a ride on a glass elevator in a nearby building and test his newfound fearlessness.
As the elevator began to rise he peered out of its glass sides with a broad grin. "Look at this beautiful scene," he thought. He scanned the landscape as it fell away from his feet. Suddenly he realised with enormous fright that he was looking straight down. The height was immense. The people were tiny. He began to shake. His palms were sweaty and he spent the rest of the elevator ride paralysed by his old fear.
When next he saw his friend the man immediately began to complain. "You gave me a faulty technique! It has done nothing to get rid of my fear. For three weeks I looked nowhere but up. Then yesterday I took the glass elevator and felt more afraid than ever before!"
The man's friend laughed. "Of course," he said, "its easy not to look down when your feet are on the ground!"
So what does all this mean for Mindfulness in schools?
Well for one thing, mindfulness needs to be embedded in as many interactions as possible during the day. Meditation, stillness and relaxation play their role. A very important role at that. But the real practice happens in the elevator. When things are difficult.
It should be emphasised that mindfulness practice means applying a set of skills in a practical way, over and over again. Real results will come, and quickly, but only with continued practice. Its a way of life.
Having awareness of mind in moments of difficulty, in moments when students are experiencing difficult emotions, is a skill that itself only comes with practice. Because we react to sadness in others. We want to change it, want it to go away. We too find it difficult to observe a grazed knee on a little leg. To observe fear in those we love so dearly.
And therein lies the most important lesson of all. To truly integrate mindfulness into education we have to all be practicing. We have to recognise that as teachers, we too are in brain training. And we have to be committed to the same kind of training as our students.
If we can do that, then we can find real peace, real harmony, real happiness. Together.
A final thought on the role of formal meditation
Formal meditation is also very important. We must practice mindfulness as often as possible throughout the day, learning to observe with equanimity the ebbs and flows of our emotional lives. But we should also learn to be still. Learn the discipline of seated meditation. Therein lies an opportunity to train the mind at a level beneath the superficial thoughts, desires and aversions roaming at the surface.