Google’s doing it, and so are the NHS; Harvard teaches it, and Amazon has three books on the subject amongst its top ten self-help bestsellers. It’s advocated as a cure for depression and anxiety, an antidote to stress and chronic pain, and even a method for helping heavy drinkers cut back on booze. But perhaps the sector of the population that can most benefit from this wonderful practice is the people of the future… and that’s why Natalie Zannettou is focusing on teaching mindfulness to kids.
“Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally,” explains Natalie Zannettou. A professional trainer and teacher of mindfulness, she’s an expert in a practice that was founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn that has its origins in Zen Buddhism. “Zen monks in a temple focus on the here and now, and whether they’re cooking or cleaning or gardening, it’s about that focus on the present moment,” says Natalie, who has practised in Zen temples herself and has seen the crossover of principles first-hand. “Like Zen, mindfulness is about not allowing the attention of your mind to be taken by past or future thoughts, but with practice learning to redirect it to life happening now. And when practised regularly, the results are amazing!”
Originally applied in hospitals and prisons, the educational establishment was quick to cotton onto the benefits of mindfulness. “Jon Kabat-Zinn and the team who were later to create the Mindful Schools organisation tried his programme in a number of American schools in states with very high rates of criminality,” Natalie reveals, “and there was an incredible improvement. Even the students without disciplinary problems responded really well: their grades were higher, they were more focused in class, and their teachers noticed real progress.”
By 2007, the non-profit organisation mindfulschools.org had been founded, training people to bring mindfulness to the mainstream education system in the US (the UK, Sweden, and Switzerland now also boast a number of schools who include the practice in their curriculum). Natalie was one of these: while studying in the States, she became involved with Landmark Education (also based on Zen Buddhism), completed their teaching curriculum and became a seminar leader.
“The studies included eight years of training, as well as a move to London for completion of the course, so when I returned to Cyprus I began leading seminars for Landmark Education for countries all over Europe. At the same time, I decided I wanted to bring something to kids, but Landmark didn’t have any programmes that could take place in Cyprus. So I then trained with Mindful schools.org, and designed my own programme…”
Today, Natalie is one of the very few mindfulness experts on the island who works with children, even bringing the practice into the formal education system. Still a practising architect, she reserves several days a week for her private classes, in which she teaches both children and adults, and has been working with students at the Junior School over the past year.
“The brain produces thoughts in the same way that bread in a toaster gives you toast, it’s machine-like. It’s all brain patterns; it’s the automatic nature of the brain to reproduce those thoughts in response to a similar stimulus, and this holds you imprisoned in a sense by your childhood decisions. So altering the nature of your thoughts and emotions and the nature of your relationship with yourself is the main benefit in mindfulness. With the kids I sometimes call this the ‘Mind Gym’; it’s like a workout for your pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for self-discipline and decision-making which regulates emotion and concentration and focus.”
Working with mindfulness meditation and being mindful of one’s thoughts, Natalie helps children learn to concentrate on the present moment rather than the constant whirl of emotions and thoughts. “Using simple techniques, we learn to observe our thoughts, creating space between an incident and our reactions to it. We learn how not to take things personally, we learn compassion – or ‘heartfulness’ – and we look at how to redirect attention from that inner dialogue towards the present moment, giving an inner calmness rather than an immediate reaction.”
Through mindful breathing, listening, and the like, Natalie improves the relationship with the self. And the benefits, she claims, are huge. “Mindfulness increases emotional and social intelligence, focus, concentration and self-discipline, and this has incredible academic benefits – kids who practise mindfulness often end up doing much better in school. At the same time, it helps with self-confidence, anxiety and pressure, allowing you to take responsibility for your state of being. It is,” she adds, “particularly important for teenagers. They’re in a place where they’re starting to become their own being, a time when who they are becomes important, and when society is placing new expectations upon them. So having the ability to access this discipline is truly important, I think, at this age.”
But mindfulness is not only important for children. It’s a practice that’s beneficial to everyone, everywhere. “Every age and every culture has their own challenges,” Natalie explains. “In America, it may be drugs and sex and fraternities; here in Cyprus we’re dealing with a small community and the accompanying guilt of existing in a society in which every action is seen and judged by our peers, and this can create issues from childhood through one’s whole life. But,” she adds, “by practising the techniques of mindfulness” – counting breaths, mindful seeing; there are innumerable apps which can help both parents and children, Natalie reveals – “you’re getting outside your own head and emotions and looking at what’s working and what’s not.
“And ultimately,” she concludes, “that’s what mindfulness does: it allows you to become who you really want to be, to be true to yourself, and stop living your life as a reaction to what’s going on around you.”
For more information on mindfulness, visit www.mindful.org. Natalie runs mindfulness classes for both children and adults. For more information, visit the Facebook page ‘Mindfulness for Kids and Life’, email [email protected] or call 99 488091