Sri Lankan education, youth and the value of mindfulness

Wednesday, 1 May 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Every day we witness some ragging or fighting with violence among university and school students in the country. An increasing number of suicide cases can also be seen among the youth. This is not an exception even in a Western context. But as a country with well over 5,000 years of proud civilisation and history, Sri Lanka should be more concerned about these developments. Please refer the following news items which were extracted in newspapers from 2012 to 2013.

20 May 2013: Disciplinary action has been taken against 20 students from the Engineering Faculty of the University of Peradeniya, for alleged ragging. The Public Relations Officer of the university said that the students had been caught in the act by the Vice Chancellor and several members of the disciplinary committee on Sunday morning, after they had received information that first year students of the Engineering Faculty were being ragged.

18 June 2012: The Buttala Police today arrested four AL students on charges of having assaulted several teachers of the Buttala Uva Pelwatte Maha Vidyalaya, when the teachers had intervened to stop the ragging of the newly-admitted students.

17 January 2013: The Faculties of Engineering and National Diploma in Technology (NDT) at the Moratuwa University were temporally closed following a clash between two student groups last evening, Police said. Six students were injured during the clash and two of them were admitted to the Colombo National Hospital and the Kalubowila Teaching hospital.

23 October 2012: Following the clash between two student groups today, the Education Ministry said Grade 10, 11, 12 and 13 classes at Royal and Thurstan Colleges in Colombo 7 would be closed from Wednesday (24) till 29 October.

17 February 2012: Police are investigating the mysterious death of a 15-year-old schoolgirl who was found hanging inside her room. The incident was reported in Ihala Thammennawa area in Medawachchiya on Wednesday. The Police was immediately informed by the residents of the area. It is believed that a love affair had led to the incident.

According to Dr. Neil Fernando, Head of National Institute of Mental Health Promotion, Sri Lanka has one of highest suicide rates in the world, with almost 4,000 people killing themselves per year, or about 11 per day. The majority of victims were aged 15 to 44.

If you really study the reasons for suicide cases, ragging as well as fights, there may be social and economic problems. The person who commits suicide may see his or her actions as some sort of solution to a severe physical or psychological dilemma. The psychology of the suicide is rooted in depression (Geberth, 1996). Even the outcome of ragging also can be directly related to the depression.

The research done by Castaldelli-Maia JM, Martins SS, Bhugra D, Machado MP, Andrade AG, Alexandrino-Silva C, Baldassin S and de Toledo Ferraz Alves TC in Department of Psychiatry, Medical School in Brazil in 2012 revealed the relationship between ragging and depression with related to the victim. Some research even suggested that depression would lead to murders as well (

But now it can be seen that many schools, universities and companies as well as institutions across the globe are conducting programs of mindfulness in order to get away from depression and many problems. What is mindfulness? There are hundreds of definitions can be seen from different roots. But the following definition defines this with the essence of Buddhism: “Mindfulness is a spiritual or psychological faculty that, according to the teaching of the Buddha, is considered to be of great importance in the path to enlightenment.”

In Buddhism the concept of mindfulness has been discussed under the Noble Eightfold Path. The Noble Eightfold Path is a practical roadmap to ethical and mental development with the goal of freeing the individual from attachments and delusions; to understanding the truth about all things. According to the table, mindfulness can be considered as one part of mental development.

According to, “Mindfulness is a way of paying attention to, and seeing clearly whatever is happening in our lives. It will not eliminate life’s pressures, but it can help us respond to them in a calmer manner that benefits our heart, head, and body. It helps us recognise and step away from habitual, often unconscious emotional and physiological reactions to everyday events. It provides us with a scientifically researched approach to cultivating clarity, insight, and understanding. Practicing mindfulness allows us to be fully present in our life and work, and improve our quality of life.”

It can be seen some programs in mindfulness is conducting in schools and universities successfully. In Buddhism we learn Anapanasathi which mean ‘mindfulness of breathing’. The same is conducting in some mindfulness programs in the initial stage. See the following extract from one elementary school in the US: During a five-week pilot program at Piedmont Avenue Elementary, Miss Megan, the ‘mindful’ coach, visited every classroom twice a week, leading 15 minute sessions on how to have ‘gentle breaths and still bodies’.

There are several training programs like Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) developed by Professor Mark Williams and his team in Oxford University’s Department of Psychiatry which showed that MBCT could significantly reduce the rate of recurrence in serious recurrent depression. The University of Oxford’s Centre for Suicide Research found that mindfulness meditation can cut the recurrence of depression by 50%, and neuro imaging scans have shown significant positive change in brain activity of long-term meditators. The latest, from a team at the University of California, Santa Barbara, reports even a short, two-week course in focusing the mind can lead to immediate, tangible results: higher scores on tests measuring reasoning and comprehension.

“Our results suggest that cultivating mindfulness is an effective and efficient technique for improving cognitive function, with wide-reaching consequences,” a research team led by psychologist Michael Mrazek writes in the journal Psychological Science.

It is all about paying attention in the purpose of present moment without making judgments. We are often unaware of what we are doing. This has been extensively discussed in Buddhism as well. Simply in Buddhism, ‘Satipattana’ means to be in the moment at all times. A person should always ‘live in the moment,’ so to speak.

Sri Lanka has a history of practicing Anapanasathi in schools for years. But there is a need for proper mindfulness program in the Sri Lankan education system (school to university level). There is no requirement to “import” experts from Western countries as our system is governed by the teachings of Buddhism. Nevertheless, we can incorporate the success stories and the pedagogy they used to teach students. This can be applicable to schools as well as in universities in the country.

The initiative is like an investment in the long-term for the country. This can be considered as one method to reduce violence as well as depression among youth in the early stage of their life. In addition to this, it will teach them to live in a current moment , respond more effectively to complex or difficult situations , become more creative, and more importantly to achieve balance and resilience at work and at home.

Actually the problem which Sri Lankans are facing is that we have our own values and precious resources but they have been exploited (or utilised) effectively by others not by us. Furthermore, the concept of mindfulness is something which most of us read about and listen to, but have not been practicing for years. But if we start to work and live accordingly, this nation will be the island with peace and prosperity forever.

(The writer is a Senior Lecturer at the Open University of Sri Lanka.)




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