When I reported last month on the wellbeing and mental health topics raised at the Positive Schools Conference in Fremantle, I promised more on Keynote Speaker Li Cunxin.
Li has one of those inspiring life stories that restore your belief that you can do anything. Born into poverty in Mao’s communist China, at 11 he was selected by chance to attend the Beijing Dance Academy where for 7 years, he endured 16 hours of training a day. Initially he cried himself to sleep until one day a teacher ignited his passion for dance. He attended the Houston Ballet under scholarship and on completion he defected to the West resulting in his Chinese citizenship being revoked. There were few dry eyes when he told the story of his reunion with his parents when he was eventually permitted to return to China.
Recognised as the best dancer of his generation and now Artistic Director of the Queensland Ballet, Li’s memoir international best seller “Mao’s Last Dancer”, is recommended reading these school holidays. It is printed in different versions for readers of various ages.
The lessons imparted by Li include the need for mental health, focus, strength and stamina to face challenges, maximise opportunities and realise dreams. One approach to achieving and maintaining such a mental state is mindfulness and meditation.
Brayden Zeer of Mindful Meditation Australia (MMA) explained that “mindfulness is the mental skill of attention”. To be mindful means to pay attention, or to focus, or to hold something in our mind. Mindfulness is a shift from automatic, reactive thought to conscious, directed thought. It implies seeing things clearly and accurately, which usually leads to a better outcome. For example, if we become mindful of unnecessary tension or an unhelpful thought or an emotional over-reaction, we can quickly adjust our response accordingly. Mindfulness and meditation can begin with simply stopping to take some breaths to reset or calm the body and mind.
MMA is a not for profit organisation founded by WA mine owner Kerry Harmanis who is proof the approach works. Brayden said “Kerry credits his success to being able to think clearly through using meditation”. The organisation trains teachers who then train the kids and they also have a whole of school approach. Integrating mindfulness and meditation into schools has been found to enable greater staff and student wellbeing by improving mental health, relieving stress and anxiety, enhancing academic achievement and readiness to learn and improving interpersonal relationships. Studies have shown that regular practice can help build grey matter and strengthen neural pathways to the brain and also lead to improved immune system functioning, physical health, emotional regulation.
These practices can be traced back for centuries and sometimes they are the skills one easily forgets in times of stress, during a busy day, in a noisy classroom or when shopping with the kids. Take a moment now to pause and be aware of your breathing.
Li and Kerry are examples of what can be achieved when you put your mind(fulness) to it.