Two vivid yet distinctly different images scrolled through my mind on Monday, April 15. The first image appeared in the Akron Beacon Journal, a photograph of a classroom of children lying on the floor, quietly listening to soothing music. The front-page article, headlined “Plain Township school stops mindfulness program after some in community raise concerns,” described the termination of a seemingly successful program after some parents expressed concern that mindfulness was linked too closely with Eastern religions.
The other indelible image was on CNN, the tragic aftermath of yet another senseless crime against humanity, a bloodbath inflicted by crazed individuals who detonated shrapnel-laden explosives in a crowd of innocents at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
My mind’s eye couldn’t help but draw a comparison between the two images, the peaceful youngsters lying on their classroom floor in a protective cocoon of safety at their Plain Township school and the contrasting image of the dead, bloodied and maimed on the sidewalks of Boston, the result of an obscene act of mindlessness.
In the moments before the bombs exploded, I was watching as some of the marathoners approached the finish line. Each was in a zone, focused and concentrating on their breath. The body and mind of each runner were in perfect synchrony, working in precise unison as the finish line approached. Each runner was in a state of meditative running, a place of complete mindfulness.
Then, all of that changed. The explosions shattered not only the beauty of the day, but they destroyed the mindfulness state of the runners, leaving them in a state of chaos until the reality of the incomprehensible congealed in their consciousness.
Mindfulness and mindlessness have much in common. One represents the paucity of the other. They are conjoined. One cannot fully comprehend awareness without at some point experiencing confusion; one cannot appreciate light without at some point being in the dark.
There have been many studies underscoring the beneficial power of mindfulness. The results have demonstrated that with mindful-meditation comes a clearer capacity to concentrate, a more enhanced awareness and focus, while a relaxing calmness brings many health benefits, lowering blood pressure and heart rate, to name two.
In a recent study from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, MRI imaging revealed that improvements in mental health were achievable in individuals practicing mindful-meditation.
So what’s the problem?
Mindfulness is often misunderstood and misrepresented. It is something many link to the practice of Buddhism. In truth, it is not specific to any religion. It is an integral part of most, if not all, belief systems.
Meditation and mindfulness are mentioned repeatedly in the Talmud and the New Testament. In the Jewish faith, mindfulness is the vehicle that allows one to relate and navigate through this human experience. With the integration of mindfulness, the capacity to love, to be generous and to be compassionate is enhanced. Being in the milieu of silence facilitates the attainment of wisdom and enlightenment, while allowing one to look at the complex reality of life in this ever-changing world.
The Christian faith supports a similar belief that one should practice mindfulness, paying close attention to all that surrounds us, paying particular attention to what is being experienced in this moment. Being mindful provides a way to grow in closer alignment with God, appreciating the preciousness of life, treating each moment as if it would be the first and the last.
Matthew 6:25-34 illustrates how the Christian faith allows mindfulness to be the guide, imploring one to focus on nothing other than the present: “I tell you do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. … But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow.”
The most sacred of places in Islam is the Kaaba in Mecca. Five times a day no matter where they are or what they are doing, Muslims turn toward Mecca. They pray, practicing mindfulness, an intentional pause that takes them far away from the encumbrances of day-to-day life. In this prayerful state of mindfulness, they transcend into the awareness of a greater power working within them.
The Quran instructs the prayerful to be mindful of the deep meanings of one’s invocations, which helps one to gain greater influence over the mind and achieve higher levels of Khushu, which means “softness of the heart.”
Mindfulness itself is not a practice specific to any religious tradition; it is a human faculty, with the potential to benefit every person on earth.
As a scientist who grew up embracing the importance of education and the vast knowledge it offers, my understanding of life has evolved and changed over the years. There was a time when I might have agreed with the sentiment of Melanie Snedeker who was quoted in the Beacon Journal article. I now respectfully disagree with her. Referring to the practice of mindfulness she said: “They [the school administrators] were taking valuable time away from education to put students in a room of darkness to lay on their backs.”
In our world, far too much chaos, turmoil, suffering and fear exist. We must provide our children with a much different paradigm than we have grown up using. We must offer what we have for ourselves failed to cultivate. We must show them the doorway to peace.
The gateway to Shalom and Salaam opens inwardly. Peace is not found out there; it lies within each of us. It is simply awaiting our acknowledgment.
The most important thing we can do to educate our children is to direct them away from the mindlessness. We must illuminate for them the path that leads toward mindfulness and ultimately … peace.
Gordon is a retired Akron cardiologist and the author of No Storm Lasts Forever: Transforming Suffering Into Insight. He received the Bert A. Polsky Humanitarian Award from the Akron Community Foundation in 2012.