The way of the warrior: How mindfulness builds resilience

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child meditating
Illustration by Carey Sookocheff

“I’ve always been an anxious person,” says 19-year-old Harry Wenban. His claim is bemusing at first, given his calm demeanor and the placid tone of his voice. But his anxiety is a characteristic he’s spent six years taming through meditation. “I am in no way the same person now,” says Wenban, recalling how his apprehension prevented him from making friends or talking to girls.

Diagnosed with a learning disability at the age of 12, practicing meditation has not eliminated his anxiety, he says, but rather helped him cultivate the self-awareness to manage it. “I notice the thoughts as they are being produced,” a skill that allows Wenban to experience fear, angst, and panic with a lot more tranquility. “I’m present with those [feelings]. I can still move forward and do things I value.”

This act of observing one's thoughts as they are being experienced is a key part of self and present-moment awareness – skills Wenban learned from an integrated therapy that combines meditation with martial arts, called mindfulness martial arts (MMA). Child and family therapist, Paul Badali, designed MMA therapy for kids with learning disabilities in 2002, just when the eastern practices of meditation and yoga began penetrating the mainstream for adults. What makes MMA particularly intriguing for kids is the mystique of meditation combined with a socially-valued sport like martial arts. “It’s good health and wellness,” says Badali, who still runs the MMA at Integra Children’s Mental Health Centre in Toronto. “It’s exercise, meditation, present moment awareness in being healthy, and being aware of healthy practices.”

This therapy is emerging as an effective way to manage emotions and nurture resilience in kids with learning disabilities. Wenban now leads meditation classes for adolescent boys with learning disabilities at Integra.

The art of staying present

As a martial artist and meditation practitioner for over two decades, Badali uses two distinct styles of meditation in the MMA programe – zen and mindfulness. “Zen [meditation] is one-pointed – like a laser beam,” says Badali. “Mindfulness meditation is like a spotlight, so it shifts from whatever rises from the present moment.” Derived from the Sanskrit word for awareness, mindfulness originates from Buddhist spiritual practices. It means paying attention in a particular way: intentionally, in the present moment, and without judgment. “We start off with a single focus and if our attention shifts, we go with it,” he says, swaying his finger back and forth, “but then we bring it back to the single focus.”

Less impulsive, more resilient

Early studies show MMA for kids with learning disabilities are beneficial. Researchers at Integra used a performance-based task to measure impulsivity, which many kids with learning disability struggle to control. “Because they are impulsive, they have difficulty staying present long enough to make decisions,” explains Dr. Karen Milligan, psychologist and director at Integra and lead researcher of the study. Results from before and after a 10-week session in MMA therapy showed kids were significantly less impulsive after the sessions were completed. In a parallel study, Dr. Milligan also found the kids were better equipped to shift their behaviour according to context. “It shows that they are able to break patterns of automatic responding, like screaming back at parents. Instead, they are able to stop and think and talk about it.”

Becoming more conscious of the present moment helps nurture these essential life skills, including resiliency – the ability to recover quickly from change or misfortune, she adds. “When you are stressed to the max, your ability to problem-solve and be flexible goes out the window. But when you are able to be mindful, you are able to stop, think, make choices, and weigh out different options.” These skills help kids stay present with their experience longer, no matter how difficult, instead of avoiding the problem. “Some kids put these [skills] into play with their parents or peers. Some kids were able to stand up to bullies. Some shifted in terms of their school work and showed fewer behaviour problems at school.” As a result, she envisions the therapy as a useful component integrated into prevention programs and school curriculums. “The MMA programme has given us a model for how you would work with kids with learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and processing difficulties.”

Slowly spawning warrior monks 

An important facet of the therapy is that it is not uncomfortably idealistic. Given the challenges and competitiveness of martial arts practice, the kids experience risk and setbacks right away – providing an allegory for the inevitable hurdles experienced in real life.

“It’s like a lab that we practice in,” says Badali. “When kids first come here, they don’t feel a sense of mastery.” But with time, he says, they develop trust in themselves and trust in others. MMA helps kids embrace challenges with equanimity by present-moment awareness and coping ‘self-talk’ aphorisms, like ‘Let it be,’ ‘Let me feel this,’ or ‘Things aren’t going the way I want them to go.’  They apply these approaches when challenged during martial arts.

Habituating the mind to recognize thoughts as they are, explains Badali, eventually leads you to discern their impermanence. “Mindfulness isn’t about changing things. Even though things are not going the way we want them to go, we can still be with that thought. We can still do what we need to do.”

Mindfulness is a verb

“What many people don’t understand about mindfulness is that it is not just learned. It’s all about practice,” says Badali, candidly adding, “If it remains there as a concept, it might as well just remain in a book. Mindfulness needs to be brought to life.” When used on a daily basis, the benefits of practicing mindfulness are not just reaped by those struggling with learning disabilities. The inclusivity of the philosophy-turned-therapy is what makes it relevant for everyone. Parents included. 

Whether taking a day class, or weekend retreat, parents can garner the benefits if they put it into practice at home, says Badali. “Do it when you wash the dishes, when you speak to your kids, before you go to bed, and when you wake up.” And through each experience, one makes discoveries that cannot be taught. “The rest is personal.”

For more information on managing anxiety, please see Anxiety, in the Health A to Z section of AboutKidsHealth. You can also learn more about ADHD in the Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) resource centre.

Nira Datta
Writer/Editor, AboutKidsHealth