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Why Students Need Heartfulness

The Japanese symbol for mindfulness is one of those elegant shapeshifting words that depends on context to reveal its meaning; it combines the symbol for presence with the symbol for mind, spirit or heart—in other words, the familiar concept of mindfulness could also be translated heartfulness. To be mindful is also to have presence of heart. I like to think of it as a moment-to-moment homecoming to the center of my own heart.

I was incredibly fortunate to begin my journey in mindfulness with a teacher who emphasizes the interdependence of mind and heart, Dr. Shauna Shapiro. Too often, mindfulness in its secularized form is treated as a tool to enhance attention, as though the capacity to pay attention can be separated from the attitude we hold toward the object of our attention: how we pay attention matters! “Otherwise,” Dr. Shapiro would say, “a sniper is mindful.”

My own experience as a successful academic, who has struggled for a lifetime with sometimes debilitating anxiety is proof enough to me of the significance of this distinction. At the “pinnacle” of my academic success, I began to experience panic attacks and met all the diagnostic criteria for generalized anxiety disorder. The attitudes of fear, self-judgment, and perfectionism were literally undermining the very rewards I had reaped through years of persistence, concentration and intellectual grit. And now that I work with young people in an area known for intense academic competition, alarming suicide rates, and a sometimes ironic embrace of the mindfulness in education movement, I have never been more sure that heartfulness is what these students need, not mindfulness.

It is a beautiful thing to see a roomful of students earnestly experimenting with the practice of paying attention to the breath, resting in the being mode rather than the doing mode that so much of their lives demands. But as anyone who has tried one minute of mindfulness already knows, even when the body is perfectly still, the mind can be a war zone. Students quickly find that paying attention to the breath is not as easy as it sounds. Or as one student of mine asked, “Sarah, I get that we’re supposed to pay attention to the breath, but what is it we’re supposed to be doing while we’re paying attention to the breath?” My answer was: “Exactly.”

“The key is this,” I tell them, “Your mind will wander, that’s what minds do. The practice of mindfulness is actually noticing that the mind has wandered off and gently, with kindness inviting it back to the breath.”

The word kindness here is not trivial, but essential. It is what I mean when I say heartfulness. Our habits of mind, my students’ and my own, are not generally kind. They tend to be self-critical, often harsh, unforgiving. “This is so simple, why can’t I do it? If I can’t even pay attention to my breath, no wonder I can’t understand math!” “Come on, Sarah, just pay attention!!” Sound familiar? The voices we hear growing up become the voices in our heads.

Heartfulness is this: “Oh, I’ve wandered off again, here I am, welcome home.” With practice, this voice gets stronger; the heart grows. The mind does not change, what changes is how we relate to it and thus how we relate to ourselves.

The temptation among many of my bright, driven students, and I would argue the temptation to the Western mind in general because of our cultural conditioning, is to immediately apply the goal-orientation mode to mindfulness itself. This has resulted in a mindfulness “boom” that emphasizes how mindfulness reduces stress, enhances cognitive skills and helps students and professionals become more successful. While a growing body of research supports these claims, the language of the mindfulness revolution often forgets to tell the story of how mindfulness grows the heart and how like the opening of a bud, this process unfolds according to its own timetable; it cannot be forced.

Though I am familiar with the effects of mindfulness on grey matter density and cortical thickness, working memory capacity and insight problem solving, the mechanisms by which mindfulness generates positive effects are still tantalizingly mysterious. What’s more, as I walk by classrooms every day overflowing with students taking their 9th, 10th, 17th practice SAT, I am struck by the overwhelming evidence that these students are not incapable of paying attention.

Likewise, at home, I have watched my 14-year-old play video games, sometimes without eating, for hours on end. Trust me, it is not the muscle of attention that needs more exercise. It is paying attention when bored, paying attention when scared, paying attention when disoriented, insecure, vulnerable, and sometimes remembering to pay attention when happy that is the real struggle. Paying attention in these moments, above all, requires self-compassion and kindness, a presence of heart, without which the mind cannot stay with the pain and discomfort.

I tend to see it this way: What is procrastination if not a desperate flight from some internal or external experience, which we find difficult or impossible to accept with openness, receptivity and dare I say it, love? Without love, we cannot open to what is really here: Fear? Boredom? Self-doubt? The voice that says, “You’ll never be good at this, give up.”

Our attention is empty if it is not a container that invites these voices to speak. The transformation from mindless to mindful is catalyzed by the lovelight we shine on the dark corners of our inner world. If we want the bud to open, to smell, taste, live the benefits of mindful practice, the light of our own mind must be like the soft warmth of the sun. The invitation of mindfulness is not simply to pay attention, but to attend with kindness, to nourish the seeds of who we will become with a light that does not judge the seed for beginning its journey in the dark.  


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