Guarding the sense doors

/ January 31, 2017

This Precious Human Life

“Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it.

I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others; to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.

I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others. I am going to benefit others as much as I can.”

– His Holiness 14th Dalai Lama

Happy New Year!

In the spirit of this quote, my first blog of 2017 is tangentially about a practice that I first learnt at Gaia House many years ago. As with many practices that ‘swim against the current of our present culture’, I need to remind myself of it time and time again.

Whilst studying the Satipattana Sutta, which is the original teaching from which our practice of Mindfulness stems, the Buddha talks about the six ‘sense doors’ of experience. These are: sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing and ‘what the mind takes hold of’ (your mind’s knowledge of ideas). The Buddha advises restraint or ‘renunciation’, with respect to experiences (monks are often referred to as ‘renunciates’) . The Western brain is often resistant and reactive towards the idea of renunciation!

As a lay person interested in a holistic, engaged way of being, one can begin by being more aware of what we are letting through these ‘sense doors’ and operating with some discernment and reflection. This is not easy to do when we lead such busy, full lives and and have a ton of stimulation. For this part of the practice to be effective, we need time to reflect and that requires an amount of space in our lives. In itself, this is a useful reflection because it opens up the idea that if we want to be aware and more in control of what we are inviting through these sense doors, we may need to make decisions about how much stimulation is good for us; how much, and of what, we want in our lives and, in the context of this Head’s Up, in our children’s lives.

‘Realize that you’re not a passive receiver of sights, sounds, etc. The mind actually goes out looking for sensory stimuli. And often it’s looking for trouble. There are times, for instance, when there’s nothing in your surroundings to inspire lust, but lust arises in the mind and goes looking for something to nourish itself. The same thing happens with anger and all your other emotions.’ Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Through conversations with teachers and parents in our community, I feel it is important for me to initiate a conversation about the use of screens, and in particular computer games and the internet as it pertains to the children in our care. Whilst acknowledging that there are may be some good educational computer games, it is my understanding that allowing our children regular access to more aggressive ones, risks undermining what we are trying to achieve in our unique and special school with a Buddhist ethos. This is a rapidly changing area and there is also the question of how age-appropriate some of these games really are. For advice, I direct you to the recently updated document I have compiled about Online Safety on the school website.

From my experience both as an educator and meditator over the years, I feel that we need to ‘guard the doors of our children’s senses’ no matter how unpopular that may temporarily make us (or me). This means being aware and discerning about what our children are exposed to and how much.

Why? There is the reflection which is simply about ‘screen-time’ and then another to do with the nature and content of the interaction with the screen. In short, excessive screen-time appears to impair brain structure and function. Much of the damage occurs in the brain’s frontal lobe, which develops throughout childhood but, perhaps not surprisingly, the most crucial stage of development is in early childhood and is dependent on authentic human interactions. This is the area responsible for decoding and comprehending social interactions, learning how to read the hundreds of unspoken signs—facial expression, tone of voice, and more—that add colour and depth to real-world relationships. It also includes the ability to focus, to concentrate, to lend attention and to build a large vocabulary. It is in this corner of the mind that we empathise with others. Frontal lobe development largely determines success in every area of life—from a sense of well-being to academic/career success to relationship skills.

So what is ‘excessive’? To some extent we can look at research, and also to our direct experience of the child as their parents, carers and teachers. Do they suffer from sensory overload and a hyper-aroused nervous system? Do they struggle with lack of restorative sleep? Are they impulsive, moody and unable to pay attention? Could this be connected to what they are doing when they are in front of a screen?

As a school team, we are passionate about the process of developing positive key qualities and a sense of wellbeing that will serve children for the rest of their lives; compassion, positive self-regard, kindness, focus, calmness and concentration. We offer this ethos with the understanding that it will only be successful if carried out in partnership with parents who support our approach.

In addition, research on video games has shown dopamine (a key component in reward processing and addiction) is released during gaming. This produces feelings of pleasure and in turn, craving and urges for more. This cycle, mapped out in Buddhist thought, can get tighter and tighter and out of our control; craving or urges for gaming produces brain changes that mimic drug or alcohol cravings. Dopamine hits in the brain can feel addictive, and when a child gets too used to an immediate stimuli response, she or he will learn to always prefer smartphone-style interaction—that is, immediate gratification and response—over real-world connection.

Some of these behaviours, we see in some of our children, particularly in unstructured play situations, and I find it worrying. On the one hand, as Head, I welcome games that are ‘make believe’, but on the other hand, if those games are violent, leading to children being less caring towards each other, then I feel I have to draw attention to that.

Along with numerous psychologists in the public domain, I have written about the importance of allowing children to get bored, to see what is on the other side of ‘bored’ once boredom has been passed through. With careful support, my experience tells me that on the other side of the pit of boredom is a creative, fertile, interesting and nourishing place. It is worth ‘guarding the sense doors’ of the children in our care and even reclaiming the middle way of renouncing some of the stimuli that, in the short term only, give us fleeting pleasure.

– Clare

Thanks to Victoria L. Dunckley, M.D., an integrative child psychiatrist specialising in children with complex or treatment-resistant mental health conditions and Dr. Aric Sigman, an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine. I also referred to research: Koepp, 1998, Kuhn, 2011, Ko, 2009 and Han, 2011.

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