Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Speaker touts ‘mindful awareness’

Conference offers tips on raising aware, attentive children

Express Staff Writer

Susan Kaiser Greenland, keynote speaker Saturday at a St. Luke’s Center for Community Health conference, talks to attendees about a secular approach to mindfulness, especially its application to kids’ health and well-being. Photo by Willy Cook

Stress and anxiety can cause such discombobulation in a person's mind that any attempt at problem solving is overruled by emotion.

Meditation advocates say the practice can help calm the emotional reaction, allowing the problem-solving part of the brain to function.

Adults unfamiliar with, or unconvinced by, the idea of mindfulness may have a hard time seeing the benefits. In children, acceptance of the theory is an even tougher sell.

Susan Kaiser Greenland, keynote speaker at a St. Luke's Center for Community Health conference on Saturday, said family issues left her overwhelmed. Her husband's health problems were exacerbated by her handling of them.

"He said, 'Susan, you have to learn to meditate because you're driving me crazy,'" she said.

Greenland discussed her path to meditation, which got off to a rocky start, and her discovery of its useful application in kids. Her presentation, titled "The New ABCs—Attention, Balance and Compassion," drew about 150 people to the Liberty Theatre in Hailey.

Focusing on kids, Greenland elaborated on her secular, age-appropriate approach to mindfulness and offered tips for teachers, parents and therapists.

"We're always telling our kids to pay attention, but we're not really teaching them how," Greenland said.

The first step, she said, is to lead by example.

"All mindfulness in kids starts with your own practice," she said. "All of this mindfulness starts with you."

The term "mindfulness" can mean different things to different people, she said, and, depending on who one asks, may or may not be an essential component to meditation.

"Mindfulness to me is being aware," she said. "Paying attention in the moment."

Greenland said getting children to pay more attention to their own actions and reactions through mental training can help them deal with stress, sleeping trouble, overeating and behavioral issues. Mindful awareness, she said, can bring about happier, more compassionate children.

Persuading them to be mindful, however, requires a soft sell, one that avoids the use of the word, at least initially. Greenland instead frames it as "paying attention with kindness" or "Let's first just feel better."

One tactic she employs is asking kids to stop and feel their breathing. That shifts awareness from the contents of a stressed mind to what the body is doing. Calming the body calms the mind, and inhibits emotional hijack, she said.

Another method is using a ball filled with glitter—shake it like a snow globe until the inside is clouded. Show the child that that's what your, and maybe his or her, mind feels like. Ask the child to sit with you until the glitter in your heads settles.

This simple activity, she said, allows children to be aware of what they're feeling. Results may follow from there without other corrective action.

Just by being aware of something, "usually something starts to shift," she said. "They tend to start acting differently. You start to see changes."

Those changes might include taking a moment before responding or responding less sharply.

Conference attendee Shelley Coben, of Sun Valley, said mindfulness to her means being aware in the moment, which helps deepen understanding and develop compassion. Greenland's message is one she said she believes in, and one she hopes others will incorporate into their own lives.

"When we teach peace from the beginning, we'll have peaceful citizens in our world, and people will be better able to address problems they run into as adults," Coben said. "If the world operated in this way, think of the world we would have."

Rebecca Meany:

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