Helping students reach the height of mindfulness through Everest experience

If the power of the mind helped John Burke to top Mt Everest, can students use it to reach peak potential? writes Trish Flanagan.

HARNESSING the power of the mind has been essential to the success of hotelier John Burke in business, and on the mountains. Now he’s sharing the experience of mindfulness with secondary school students in Co Clare.

John, whose business interests include The Armada Hotel and Hotel Doolin, became the first Clareman to summit Everest in May 2017. He credits mindfulness with assisting him to achieve his goals.

“I started exploring it during the recession to cope with anxiety at work. Then in 2015 I climbed a very dangerous mountain, Ama Dablam, in Nepal. I was filled with self-doubt and fear, and realised I needed to resolve those issues for the Everest trip. My biggest lesson from mountaineering is the power of the mind,” he says.

For John, mindfulness is slowing everything down, and being in the present moment. “It’s accepting that things might not always be going right; and not overthinking them, or allowing them to disrupt the way you live your life.”

The Everest trip was a catalyst to for him to create a new charitable foundation, Elevate. Its mission is to: “Raise the Banner for Youth Wellness in Clare”. The foundation offers various programmes, at no cost, to secondary schools, Youthreach centres and youth organisations in the county. These include wellness programmes, inspirational talks and mindfulness courses.

“One in three young people have a mental health issue by the time they reach the age of 13,” says John. “We wanted to provide a tool that would help them manage their minds. Dr Joanne Kierans, psychologist, did a lot of research for us, and selected the .b programme.” The .b course (pronounced dot-be), which stands for Stop, Breathe and Be, was created for 11- to 18-year olds, by the Mindfulness in Schools Project (MISP), a UK charity which promotes the teaching of secular mindfulness in schools.

Monica Coady runs the programme with first years in Clare secondary schools. “Although originally a 10-week programme, schools offer eight weeks because of time constraints. As we’re trying to get into as many schools as possible, I’ve taken the key elements and created a six-week programme.”

Each lesson focuses on present moment awareness with the breath. The session is 40 minutes long, starting with a short practice, this is follolwed by a powerpoint presentation to stimulate discussion. The course uses animal analogies and animation to promote understanding of the concepts, eg, the mind as a chattering monkey.

“Everyone has worry thoughts. There’s nothing wrong with you if you do,” says Monica. “The key is for students to understand that thoughts aren’t facts. It’s not about getting rid of the thoughts, it’s about focusing on the breath to allow you to pause them.”

Monica has been practising mindfulness for over 10 years, and she has been teaching and lecturing in education since the 1980s. She trained to teach mindfulness at the University of Bangor in Wales and attends further training twice a year at Oxford University. All MISP teachers must train at Bangor University.

So far the .b programme has been rolled out in secondary schools including Lisdoonvarna, Spanish Point and Coláiste Muire, Ennis, and in Youthreach, Kilrush. John says it’s the most popular and well-received aspect of Elevate’s work so far. More schools have signed up for 2018.

Before starting the programme the Elevate team meet with the school principal and a link teacher. They offer an introduction to parents, who can ask questions. Monica has not experienced any adverse reaction among the students.

“There is a lot of kindness and compassion in it, and it’s non-threatening. The meditation bell draws them in, whether that’s a 12-year-old first year or a 19-year-old on a Youthreach programme. If something comes up for a student during a lesson they can talk to a member of the school’s pastoral care team.”

Joanne Casey, special education needs coordinator in Coláiste Muire, says: “From my experience, and talking to colleagues in other counties, I have seen a massive increase in the number of students presenting with anxiety and depression at school.”

So far two of the six first year classes in Coláiste Muire have taken the course, and Joanne sat in with the students. “It’s simple and straightforward. The reaction is positive, and I hear students say they are really looking forward to it. They’re becoming aware of how they think, and that everyone else is the same. It’s hugely helpful for them.”

Students Caoilainn McNamara, Ali Browne and Roisín Farrelly talk positively about their experience, and all three would recommend it.

“There are lots of classes where we do a lot of work. It was nice to go to that one. You could relax and focus on what you are doing at the moment, and not worry about anything else,” says Caoilainn.

Ali loves the FOFBOC exercise. “It means feet on floor, bum on chair. You sit at a right angle, with hands on your knees. It makes you relax.”

Roisín enjoyed that every lesson was different: “In one lesson we had to write a thank you to someone, why we were thankful and what they did for us. In another, we had to put a sweet on our tongue, and be mindful with it.”

The programme has been extensively researched. A paper in the British Journal of Psychiatry by William Kuyken et al (2013) reported that students who completed .b had lower depression and stress, and greater well-being.

“The evidence shows it helps with anxiety, relaxation, study, getting on better with people, and concentration in music and sport,” says Monica. “Some students are already putting it into practice, for example, pausing for a minute before a class they don’t like.”

Roisín bears this out as she uses the FOFBOC exercise. “If you feel things are piling on, or if you have an exam in the next class, it’s helpful. You can do it and nobody knows you’re doing it.”

Monica’s hope is schools will continue with the practice. “There’s so much going on that it can get lost. My real hope is that mindfulness could be integrated into school life.”

Joanne says it gives them awareness and skills they can practise at home. But she’d also like to see it reinforced. “The school is considering offering a guided meditation or mindfulness to students once a week. Even adults need structured guidance to get into mindfulness,” she says.

If there’s just one thing that Monica would like students to take away from the experience, it’s to bring awareness to the breath, even for one minute. “We “unworry” by using the breath,” she says.

While John may have conquered Everest, he’s not imposing his own ambition through Elevate and the mindfulness programme. “It’s not about achieving great feats, but allowing young people to live their lives in a happy way, and live to be themselves. Greatness is at all different levels, from winning All-Irelands for Clare to being a really good person to their friends and family.”


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