The decade-old Irish mindfulness boom shows no sign of abating, yet some leading exponents are beginning to cotton on to what Buddhist practitioners have been saying for thousands of years. Mindfulness alone, without engaging the emotions, can lead to a sort of emotional alienation.
“There can be a lack of warmth with just doing mindfulness,” says Louise Shanagher, a qualified psychologist who holds creative mindfulness workshops for schools. “Having a kind attitude towards yourself is just as important as paying mindful attention. The two need to go hand in hand.”
One in five Irish people say they care for or are related to someone with a mental health problem. Ireland has the fourth highest teenage suicide rate out of 31 European countries and clinicians and psychologists are increasingly seeking to find a better way of combating this mounting mental illness epidemic.
Drawing on her experience in counselling adults and teenagers, often from difficult backgrounds, Shanagher has taken a prevention approach.
“Working in adult and teenage psychotherapy, it really hit home how big an issue depression and anxiety have become. I felt that this needs to be addressed at an earlier stage, and I thought, why is nobody doing it for kids?
“I was amazed and frustrated that we don’t teach children how to manage their emotions. It seems really obvious, and we’d reap rewards in society in so many ways if we invested in this area for children. The repercussions would be far-reaching.”
Indeed, a recent study by Richard Layard at the London School of Economics suggests that emotional wellbeing in childhood is more important to an adult’s satisfaction levels than academic success or wealth.
The research found that a child’s emotional health – both while young and afterwards – is far more important to their satisfaction levels as an adult than other factors, such as if they achieve academic success when young, or financial wealth when older. The study found that a person’s income only explains about 1 per cent of the variation in life satisfaction among people in the UK.
Other research by Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California indicates that we can control 40 per cent of our happiness by our actions and attitudes. Yet society is geared around the premise that fulfilment is predicated upon grades, material goods, wealth and romance. Reorientating the State's educational resources to reflect new evidence is a tall order, she says.
“We don’t teach children to be happy,” Shanagher adds. “We teach people how to have a career. We don’t discuss how we relate to ourselves, in our relationships and in terms of how we interact with our environment, our emotions and how our brain works.
“We can understand that from a scientific point of view, but it’s usually not explained from an experiential point of view. I was recently teaching mindfulness to a group, and they all seemed to have a very harsh inner critic – an inner bully. What we try and do is encourage children to have kindness and compassion towards themselves.”
On her website, Shanagher has made lessons plans for the Social Personal and Health Education curriculum in schools. she has also designed a mindfulness course for Athlone IT, where she is an associate lecturer, for the 2017-18 year. After completing a Master's in organisational psychology, the 32-year-old first began practising the mindfulness of breathing and Metta Bhavana meditations at the Dublin Buddhist Centre. She also explored other traditions, before moving into more mindfulness as an intervention.
The teenagers she dealt with had the full spectrum of modern social problems. “I really felt that it would have been so much better if they had had some help earlier in life,” she recalls. “A lot of their problems were already so ingrained.
“I started with the children’s creative meditation classes. I want to help in normalising our inner world, our thoughts and feelings, our struggles – teaching children effective tools to manage issues in their life.”
Together with Rose Finnerty, Shanagher has written children's books. Their first – It's Always There - concentrates on the mindfulness of breathing meditations and body meditation. Where Is Happy? concentrates on self-compassion, kindness, and self-esteem, Look Who's Here deals with emotions.
Where Is Happy? contains a lot of positive self-talk for kids. But this is contested ground. The self-esteem movement – begat by the discredited California politician John "Vasco" Vasconcellos in the 1980s – has been criticised for fuelling an unrealistic view of life in children, cossetting them from real life through grade inflation and "unconditional positive regard" regardless of behaviour or application.
Shanagher painstakingly refutes the notion that her solution to children’s mental health is self-esteem. She points out that acceptance of, and positivity towards others often starts with self-acceptance, not self-esteem. In a world where we are only beginning to see the effects of mobile online technology on mental health, it’s increasingly pertinent.
"The book is mainly about self-compassion. Where Is Happy? also introduces other tools that promote wellbeing, these are power posing, using positive affirmations and mirror work. Our book focuses on accepting even the not-so-good parts. A lot of the issues in the self-esteem movement are about denying the unsatisfactory parts.
“It’s about accepting yourself just as you are – ‘I’m perfect just as I am’. Lots of children now are on their iPhones, isolated from their environment. These days it’s not enough to be good, you must be better than others. But we’re all above-average at some things and below-average at others.”
Indeed, child psychologists have questioned the very idea of a “gifted child”, she says, and are calling on children to be praised for effort – an approach which allows for failure, and encourages learning new skills.
“We have to balance self-esteem with self-compassion, and extend that out to others. Even for healthy people, we’re all dealing with our mind, but it’s a struggle for everyone in some ways – even if we don’t talk about it. But we can talk about it.”