Gen-Z and eco-anxiety: How introducing meditation in school curriculums can help combat the mental health crisis

Having practised midnfulness for over 55 years, spiritual teacher, thought-leader and author Jayanti Kirpalani debunks the myths around meditation and explains how it can empower us to take practical action towards change


Somya Mehta

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Meeting with Ovais Sarmad, deputy executive secretary of UNFCCC at COP25 2019
Meeting with Ovais Sarmad, deputy executive secretary of UNFCCC at COP25 2019

Published: Thu 4 May 2023, 3:32 PM

Today, meditation is widely recognised as a potent tool for promoting mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing. But that hasn’t always been the case. Especially if you go back in time, to a few decades ago. 1968, a young teenager based in London was on a vacation in India, when she stumbled upon the not so popular idea of meditation — not as a farfetched concept but a practical tool to utilise in one’s daily life.

Taken aback and completely in awe of the powerful benefits of mindfulness and sitting in silence, the 18-year-old decided to make it her mission to spread the message all across the globe and become a lifelong disciple of how to master the self, in pursuit of seeking greater emotional fulfilment through life’s journey. Now, having practised meditation as a daily discipline for over half a century (55 years to be precise), Jayanti Kirpalani (goes by the name Sister Jayanti) has championed the role of bringing spiritual principles and practices to the discussion tables of global leaders, economists, business executives, scientists and community groups across the world.

Sister Jayanti Kirpalani
Sister Jayanti Kirpalani

Helming the European operations of The Brahma Kumaris, an international non-governmental organisation (NGO) of the United Nations, Sister Jayanti has been the organisation’s representative to the UN in Geneva since 1982, becoming a leading voice on how mindfulness can offer pragmatic solutions to the repercussions caused by climate change, both physical and emotional.

“What really drew my attention and interest towards meditation was the astute focus on understanding the self — our thoughts, our emotional patterns, our personality,” says Sister Jayanti, who practices the Raja Yoga form of meditation.

“People come to us having experimented with many things and what they find here is that there’s a body of knowledge about the self. For me, that is what’s most exciting about meditation. It helped me discover that you can actually understand your thoughts and where they’re coming from, so you can channel them in the right direction.”

Really understanding meditation

For starters, the term in itself can be hard to understand for as there are so many ways to define the practice. According to Sister Jayanti, meditation is a lot like creating your own reset button, which you can access at any time. Contrary to popular thinking, “Meditation doesn’t mean you stop thinking for a certain duration of time, that’s not even possible,” says Sister Jayanti.

‘Hope and Healing’ event held at Dubai Police Officer’s Club with Sister Jayanti as the keynote speaker
‘Hope and Healing’ event held at Dubai Police Officer’s Club with Sister Jayanti as the keynote speaker

“It’s the ability to use your mind in a specific way, to uplift yourself and think about your original state of being. One that is filled with love and peace,” she adds. “It’s the ability to train your mind to focus on aspects of the higher truth, to be able to know the inner self and connect to that source of energy.”

Disconnect in theory & practice

There continues to be a disconnect between awareness and practicality, when it comes to embracing meditation as a daily practice. In theory, it sounds great, but many can find sitting in silence to be a daunting task. “We are constantly doing something or the other that if you suddenly ask us to sit still, it almost doesn’t feel natural anymore,” says the UK-based mindfulness practitioner.

“We’ve got this idea that’s been programmed in our mind that you have to be doing things, instead of being. There’s this lovely expression, ‘human being’, which signifies that underneath the physiology, there’s an inner being. Meditation allows you to discover who that being is.”

With former executive director of UNFCCC and author Christiana Figueres
With former executive director of UNFCCC and author Christiana Figueres

Understanding who you are is fundamental to getting rid of your negative patterns and enhancing your positive attributes, believes Sister Jayanti. For instance, you tend to get impatient quickly or you get angry very quickly. Doctors are telling you to watch out for your blood pressure or else you may have to be on medication for the rest of your life. You feel like you can’t do anything about it. You get angrier, you react and you become part of a vicious cycle. You know you need to change but how do you get to it? “If you keep giving way to anger, it becomes a pattern of behaviour, which keeps getting stronger. It’s almost like an addiction, which gets worse each time you repeat the behaviour,” she explains.

“Through meditation, you can bring about a change in your personality in a way that you want, instead of feeling helpless about your situation,” says Sister Jayanti. Elaborating further, she adds, “Meditation also allows you to explore these patterns and behaviours. There’s a moment from which impatience turns into anger and if it persists for longer, the anger explodes. Meditation allows you to recognise these signs and patterns,” she adds. “So, you can catch yourself in that moment before it turns into anger and start a dialogue with yourself. Being mindful enables you to utilise the power of that moment.”

Youth and eco-anxiety

Even though there is more awareness around mental health now than ever before, the youth continues to struggle with emotional battles at large. “The youth is suffering increasingly because of the state of the world,” believes Sister Jayanti. “The younger ones look at the statistics of climate change and ask us adults, ‘Did you not understand that you’re creating a situation in which the planet is soon going to be unsuitable to live in?’ They’re very angry and they can’t do anything about it, which quickly turns into hopelessness,” she adds, arguing that eco-anxiety is a growing cause of concern amongst the Gen-Z.

“We’re going to be having the next climate change conference in Dubai and I’m sure eco-anxiety will be a key topic there,” says Sister Jayanti. The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) is set to take place in Dubai from November 30 to December 12, 2023.

'Hope and Healing' event at Dubai Police Officer’s Club brought Dubai residents to discuss the power of meditation
'Hope and Healing' event at Dubai Police Officer’s Club brought Dubai residents to discuss the power of meditation

Mindfulness practices are becoming more pivotal than ever for the youth to be able to navigate the challenges of a deteriorating world, Sister Jayanti adds. “Many young people are saying they don’t want to have children anymore because they don’t wish to bring them into a world that isn’t able to offer them anything.”

Meditation gives us an understanding that if we’re the people who created this situation, we’re in a position to solve it, says the spiritual teacher. “If we’ve created living conditions through which we’ve poisoned the air, the water, the earth, we’re the only ones who can change that,” says Sister Jayanti, adding that “sitting in awareness makes us come face to face with the consequences of our actions and encourages us to take mindful steps towards taking accountability for change”.

Change through education

A key challenge according to Sister Jayanti is that “we aren’t creating conditions in which kids can be exposed to spiritual teachings and value education from an early age. They’re so entrenched in consumerism that when they come into their teen years and then adulthood, they feel completely ill-equipped to handle their emotional challenges.” If practices such as meditation are introduced early on in schools, it can have a huge impact on young minds, she adds.

“Unfortunately, people still continue to think of meditation as a leisure time activity, rather than something that should be at the heart of raising a child. We see a child’s mind is being an empty container, in which we have to fill in things. But it’s actually the other way around, we need to create a space where we allow the child to express what’s within. And mindfulness will allow children to recognise that if they have time for silence, there are treasures within them that they can start discovering and using,” she adds. “It doesn’t reduce academic excellence, but rather it supports it.”

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