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Mindfulness: Bringing the Teenage Brain On-board

03/09/2014 11:42 BST | Updated 01/11/2014 09:59 GMT

"Mindfulness? What is that? What's the point?" Any self-respecting teenage class will start a mindfulness course with a very high degree of scepticism. If they didn't, I'd be worried. It is programmed into their adolescent brains to challenge what adults present them. And now you're asking them, in a school classroom, with their mates, to sit still and feel their breathing. Are you serious?

So the first lesson of any school mindfulness course has to be very carefully crafted to persuade them it is at least worth trying. Basically, you need a sales pitch, and a very good one too. If you lose them in the first lesson then the next eight are going to be painful for everyone - you included. An hour teaching teenagers who don't want to be there something they don't want to learn is never pleasant. So how do you get them on board?

A few things tend to raise their curiosity: that they can physically change their brain; that mindfulness is used by top sportsmen and musicians; that it might help with their exams or, at the very least, help them worry less about their exams. But there are two 'clinchers' that almost always make a first .b lesson one which whets the appetite:

Firstly, Kung Fu Panda. There is a wonderful scene in the Dreamworks movie which is as pithy and engaging an introduction to mindfulness as I am yet to find anywhere. Our hero panda, Po, is having a meltdown. Nothing seems to be going his way. He thinks he is rubbish at everything: "I probably sucked more today than anybody in the history of Kung Fu, in the history of China, in the history of sucking." He is anxious, he is snacking, his dreams are in tatters and everything seems pointless. What teenager hasn't felt like this (and who still doesn't now and again)? But the words of Po's turtle mentor, Oogway, speak to the kids in the class as much as they speak to the panda: "You are too concerned with what was and what will be. There's a saying: yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift, and that is why it is called the present". The colour and detail of the animation, the music, the humour and the warmth of the exchange between Oogway and Po make this a winner every time.

The second thing that brings teens on board is of course to do some mindfulness. If you pick the right practice, it will intrigue them, but picking the right practice is key. This is not an adult mindfulness class of a dozen volunteers who are keen to learn; more likely it is twenty or thirty teens slouching on plastic chairs who have just come off their phones and would rather be somewhere else. They are conscripts; you have to earn their engagement.

In .b we always start with the hands. If you've seen my TEDx talk then you'll know what I mean here. Have a go now if you want. It works. Count to three and then clap your hands together as hard as you can. Then hold them out in front of you, about a foot apart, as if you're holding a football or a basketball. Now, without looking at your hands (just keep reading this and pause now and again if you want) put your attention into your hands. What do you feel there? Fizzing? Tingling? Pulsing? A kind of pins-and-needles-y sensation? Warmth? Coolness? Notice how your attention is 'in' your hands. Now try getting up a little closer with your attention by focusing in on the thumbs, or one of them if that's easier. 'Zoom in' on the thumbs. Hold your awareness there for a few moments. And finally, have a go at shifting your attention into the tip of your left finger. Just the very tip, if you can. If you struggle with that last instruction then try closing your eyes for a few seconds and see if it makes a difference. If not, then just zoom back out again and feel all of both hands.

This little exercise rarely fails to intrigue. 'Weird' is a word you'll hear - no bad thing if you're trying to get their interest. Why the hands? Because they are so sensitive and rich in nerve endings that even a mind more accustomed to multi-screen flitting can 'aim and sustain' their attention here. What's the point? Take them back to Kung Fu Panda. Whilst you were doing that exercise, was your mind thinking about yesterday or tomorrow, or was it more 'in the present'? Even if this gives them only a tiny glimpse of how mindfulness works, it should be enough to persuade them to give you another chance. And you know what else? Maybe the classroom was properly quiet for 60 seconds too....

Mindfulness in Schools Project is a not-for-profit organisation specialising in mindfulness training for school communities - not only the pupils but the teachers, parents and others who care for them. For more information, please visit http://mindfulnessinschools.org/