By Sangita Kunapuli
Each day the chemistry students file in single file to Mia Onodera’s third period class, feeling emotions ranging from happiness, to anger, to exhaustion. As soon as the bell rings, she instructs them to close their eyes, uncross their legs and maintain a good posture.
“Breathe in deeply for four seconds, hold for four seconds and breathe out for eight,” she says as she turns off the lights of the classroom and asks for silence throughout the classroom.
After a couple of minutes, the buzzer rings and the students open their eyes, returning them to the present.
Is it meditation? Not quite. Yet, the simple exercise is able to refocus the mind and consolidates one’s thoughts, aligning with the description of mindfulness. According to Dictionary.com, mindfulness is described as “a technique in which one focuses one’s full attention only on the present, experiencing thoughts, feelings, and sensations but not judging them” and in essence, this is exactly what Onodera is attempting to do with her students.
Putting the Mind in Mindfulness
Why is being mindful so important? Why can’t we just continue with our crazy and incredibly unstoppable lives? For sophomore Naomi Desai, life is busy and stressful, but by incorporating mindfulness into her daily life, she is able to understand and see the benefits of it.
“Everyday my mom makes my family write down three things we’re grateful for,” Desai said. “It helps me focus on the happy things in my life rather than thinking my day was bad. I’m able to think about the little things that made it better.”
Desai has Elizabeth McCracken as a teacher for chemistry and therefore, she takes part in “emoji cards” – an activity adopted by the chemistry teachers in order to allow their students to practice mindfulness and become aware of their emotions. For Desai, this action is beneficial and something she enjoys doing.
“I love doing emoji cards because it helps me determine how my day can be bad or good,” Desai said. “And if there is more bad than good, writing down my feelings help me control my emotions and it helps me think of ways I can make my day better.”
This active mindfulness and thinking about one’s emotions can be referred to as emotional intelligence, which divides the vast sectors of mindfulness into smaller, more specific areas. Emotional intelligence is the ability to control your emotions and therefore the emotions of those around you.
From a science and psychological perspective, our emotions are caused by a system in the brain called the limbic system and also neurons in the hippocampus, which is another area of the brain.
Mindfulness does in fact have significant impact on brain functions. Studies have proven that just the act of being mindful for a prolonged period of time causes the amygdala, or the area of the brain with strong emotions and feelings, to shrink. Due to this, the prefrontal cortex thickens. The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain concerned with concentration, awareness and decisions. In the study, as people practiced the act of mindfulness consistently for an eight week period, the main notable alteration was that the primal reactions of the amygdala to stress were replaced by thoughtful, planned reactions through the prefrontal cortex.
Mindfulness has been proven to work, yet still others feel that it is not effective, especially when it comes to the mindfulness enforced by teachers. Sophomore Ishani Singh voices her opinion on this issue.
“I don’t think [mindfulness] really helps too much. I think it strays away from class time,” Singh said. “In my mind breathing or drawing [emojis for] what you’re feeling doesn’t take away stress – taking action by studying, working and finishing is what takes away stress.”
However, Singh’s viewpoint is not shared by all, in fact it is important to mention that many students feel they benefit from the deep breathing and the emojis cards.
Yet, if mindfulness still seems doubtful in your mind, maybe a better approach to understanding and benefitting from it could be from meditation.
Meditation: A Fancy Word for Mindfulness?
Meditation is a focusing of the mind, rooted in ancient Buddhist practices that stress concentration, clarity and emotional positivity. It is a process of learning and connecting with your inner self, becoming happier and understanding your emotions. A true meditative state occurs when the mind is calm and peaceful, as opposed to the normal state of thoughts, deadlines and other information floating around our head.
Meditation is not mindfulness, and mindfulness is not meditation. However, one needs mindfulness in order to meditate, as the mind must be quiet and focused.
To further compare both aspects, we can take a closer look at what happens in the brain during meditation. Generally, the study done on a group of people instructed to meditate revealed changes in emotional health, stress levels, memory and sense of self, to name a few. During meditation, the brain waves increase and are alpha waves, which are known to occur during peaceful & relaxed states. Furthermore, participants in the study were shown to have an increase in usage of the hippocampus, which is associated with knowledge and memory.
Overall, both mediation and mindfulness share aspects and differ in a number of ways, but ultimately, both can benefit one’s health. While it is not the thing for everyone, if you’re ever looking for a calm solace, meditation or mindfulness could be the way to go.
“I think being mindful and doing meditation can help decrease stress,” Desai said. “But I don’t think everyone can benefit from them because you need a mindset that allows you to be mature and think thoroughly about yourself and how you personally can control your feelings.”