The world recently witnessed the power of equanimity as we held our collective breath, waiting for the 12 boys and their coach – trapped deep in a cave in Thailand – to be rescued. It’s difficult to imagine how a 25 year old managed to keep himself and twelve boys, ages 11-16, calm and hopeful for such an extended period of time while facing such dire circumstances.
We now know that he spent over a decade as a monk, steeped in the tradition of mindfulness and meditation. I am sure he never imagined his practice would be such an integral part of this heroic mission. Yet, with oxygen as a limited resource and a very real chance of life-threatening panic, he meditated with the boys. Surely, mindfulness played an important part in this story’s successful outcome.
Anxiety and fear could have easily taken hold and panic would likely have ensued. Instead, through the practice of mindfulness they were able to stay in the present moment and initiate the relaxation response, the antidote to the stress response. This quite possibly was the difference between a tragic outcome and the amazing rescue the entire world is celebrating.
When the fight or flight response kicks in, the heart and breathing rate, as well as muscle tension, increases. The amygdala hijacks the regulatory, decision-making processes of the prefrontal lobe. The boys and their coach were most likely able to lower their heart and breathing rates, reduce their muscle tension and remain calm in a highly stressful situation. Harvard studies demonstrate that mindfulness not only initiates the relaxation response but extends beyond to foster self-compassion and reduced rumination.
While the extreme nature of this experience is not common to most teachers and students, many experience serious challenges and trauma which, over time, contribute to chronic stress that negatively impacts health and well-being. Whether dealing with poverty or violence in their homes and communities, bullying, scholastic pressures, substance abuse, depression and anxiety, those affected by chronic stress need relief and a way to mitigate its harmful effects. No one is immune to the daily stress of life, and while not all stress is bad, we must continuously mitigate its impact on our physiology and mental state to avoid long term consequences.
So, do you need to be monk who has practiced for 12 years to receive the benefits of mindfulness? The short answer is “no”. Studies on the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program (MBSR is considered the gold standard) demonstrate that participants see significant benefits after only 8 weeks with the program. Teachers using MBSR programs, such as Inner Explorer’s daily, audio guided practices, report changes within themselves and their students within 30 days of using the secular program. Research on the program shows a 43 percent in teacher stress with daily usage. Of course, the benefits of mindfulness in the classroom increase exponentially with a sustained, daily practice.
Now with everyone safe, we can exhale with a sigh of relief and tremendous gratitude to all those who participated in their rescue, including the coach and the boys themselves. Maybe as we hold our children a little closer as we tuck them in tonight, we add some mindful breathing.