Mindfulness, Contemplative Inquiry and Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)

With mindfulness now established as a popular, mainstream “movement” and many mindfulness programs being developed for the K-12 learning environment, we’ve discovered that it’s helpful to clarify the terms mindfulness and mindfulness practices and their relationship to social and emotional learning (SEL) and contemplative education.

Mindfulness simply refers to our innate human capacity to pay attention to our experience (internal and external) as it is unfolding, in real time. Through mindfulness practices, over time we are able to cultivate non-judgmental, effortless present moment attention which, in turn, enhances our ability to regulate emotions and cultivate empathy, compassion and other pro-social orientations and inclinations that are critical to the development of healthy social and emotional skills.

Sometimes the term “mindfulness” is used to imply the practice of mindfulness, or mindfulness meditation, which usually involves repeatedly bringing our attention to rest within our present moment experience, non-judgmentally, often using one’s breath as an initial point of focus or reference. Using mindfulness practices such as this, we are essentially training to build our capacity to focus and sustain our attention non-judgmentally in the present moment. Mindfulness practice is also a form of internal inquiry, and is just one of many such potential methods available to the contemplative educator. It’s popularity and effectiveness stems from its simplicity, directness and the fact that it is one of the oldest methods used to cultivate present moment awareness.

In contemplative education, we can use a wide variety of methods to help us cultivate non-judgmental, present moment awareness of our experience (mindfulness). In praxis, nearly any activity can be done contemplatively if it is done with the intent to cultivate self-awareness, wisdom and understanding. Moreover, the wide variety of contemplative practices can be used to cultivate other reflective skills, especially the awareness of our bodies in space, the awareness of our selves in relation to others and deeper clarity about our own internal processes, biases and perspectives.

“Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” – from the Collaborative for Academic and Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL)

In developing the skills and attitudes required for social and emotional competence, educators may choose to draw on a variety of contemplative practices; however, the mindset, attitudes and practices of contemplative education are generally broader and deeper in scope than the specific skills usually targeted in social and emotional learning curricula and programs. This broader scope is seen as equal in importance and integral to the development of a student’s academic, conceptual, analytical and social understanding.