The Mindfulness Triangle

It seems like nearly everything education-related that I read or listen to as of late mentions either Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, mindfulness, Stoicism or all three. First, let’s provide some definitions for these ideas and then I will talk about a couple examples.

  1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a structured, short-term, present-oriented psychotherapy for depression, directed toward solving current problems and modifying dysfunctional (inaccurate and/or unhelpful) thinking and behavior.
  2. Mindfulness is the intentional, accepting and non-judgemental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment
  3. Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC. The Stoics taught that destructive emotions resulted from errors in judgment, and that a sage, or person of “moral and intellectual perfection”, would not suffer such emotions.

In his book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Paul Tough writes that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, in the context of character building and education, is “using the conscious mind to recognize negative or self-destructive thoughts or interpretations and to talk yourself into a better perspective.” For example, many of the KIPP teachers profiled in the book ask students to think about their thinking, identify either negative or positive thoughts, their behavioral triggers, the resultant actions, and then plot a repeatable course that nets better outcomes for the student.

In Invisibilia, the newest podcast from NPR, the first episode entitled, The Secret History of Thoughts, explores the three phases of psychological theory. At first thoughts had meaning and a connection to the material world, ie Freudian psychoanalysis. Then it became common theory and practice to assume that thoughts had limited meaning, automatic negative thoughts should not be simply accepted and internalized, and by challenging or contradicting your thinking you could change it, i.e. Dr. Aaron Beck’s CBT. And the podcast hosts mention that, according to the research, the latter has proven more effective than the former in facilitating mental health.

Finally, the third and newest psychological theory posits that many or most thoughts have no meaning at all, and that through mindfulness therapy a person can learn to ignore those negative, meaningless thoughts altogether, and deny them the power to affect mental health. Under this theory, meditation has become a regular part of therapy. And, in fact, there is a growing movement of educators who are using yoga, meditation and other mindfulness strategies to help their students learn and take care of the whole child. Here is a great review on the Cult of Pedagogy website about a great practical new guide to mindfulness in the classroom, Teach, Breathe, Learn: Mindfulness In and Out of the Classroom.

My frequent encounters with this vein of psychology did not stop there. Lary Wallace has written a great piece in Aeon Magazine online about “why Stoicism is one of the best mind-hacks ever”, using the parlance of our times. Wallace argues that Stoicism has been largely ignored in the West because it does not offer the “exotic mystique” of the great Eastern philosophies even though it is more accessible and therefore more practical for the average person. He writes, “Stoicism is, as much as anything, a philosophy of gratitude – a gratitude, moreover, rugged enough to endure anything.”

As a real-life example of just what Stoics can endure, Wallace references the 1993 King’s College London speech of US Navy Admiral James Stockdale. In the speech Admiral Stockdale recounts his five years as a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam. He used this time as a ‘laboratory of human behavior’ in which he ignored or denied himself any concern outside of his very small ‘sphere of choice’.

Wallace’s emphasis on Stoic gratitude and Stockdale’s reliance on concerning himself only with his own actions in order to endure horrible war-time conditions both have significant ties with the character education being taught at KIPP Academies. Self-regulation, grit, and gratitude are of paramount importance for children of poverty to succeed academically and achieve social-emotional health. And any ‘mind-hack’, as Wallace labels Stoicism, must also require mindfulness to identify thoughts and actions that are within the sphere of choice. Therefore, these three ideas about our thinking, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, mindfulness and Stoicism, all have significant overlaps which can be leveraged in the classroom through intentional practice. I am energized by this possibility and will have to follow up in the future with specific teaching practices that integrate these ideas and promote positive student behaviors.

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