Students practicing a Learning to Breathe exercise.

While attending Mind & Life’s 33rd Dialogue with the Dalai Lama in 2018, Kirk and Gael Benson were inspired. The Dialogue, now available online as the “Education of the Heart,” explored new frontiers in youth education rooted in science and contemplative wisdom, expanding beyond Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). During the Dialogue, Dr. Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, a renowned expert in SEL at the University of British Columbia, showed a map of the United States indicating that in 2018 only 50% of states were integrating SEL into their education policies.

“We saw how mindfulness was spreading throughout the country, but were struck with how little was being done in Utah, our home state,” Kirk says, “my wife turned to me and said, we can do this at home.”

Kirk and Gael have been part of the expanding Mind & Life community since 2014. Throughout his life, Kirk has been driven by curiosity, leading him to explore a broad range of subjects. He says that the journey into contemplative wisdom has been exciting, full of insight gained from personal investigation and contemplative practice. Mind & Life’s work bridging science and contemplation led Kirk and Gael to become donors.

At the 2018 Dialogue, Kirk and Gael learned about the rising rates of anxiety and depression in adolescents, and the need to teach children how to survive and flourish in a complex world.  They had already seen a high level of suicide among adolescents in their local school district in Utah and felt a need to relieve some of this suffering.  From presentations and discussions at the Dialogue, Kirk understood that meditation offers a way to address emotional challenges and improve children’s lives. He wondered how he could apply this knowledge at home.

Kirk recalls that “the Dalai Lama was adamant that we need to do more to help our children, encouraging us to make a difference.”

In 2019, a year after Kirk and Gael returned home from the Dialogue, Kirk had an opportunity to do just that. A neighbor, who was also the chairperson of the English department at a local high school, sought insight from Kirk on how to support his students socially and emotionally. The interaction inspired Kirk to act on what he had learned from the Dialogue.

Building on his experiences with Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Kirk decided to pursue training in Learning to Breathe, an adaptation of MBSR for adolescents. Following his training, he began teaching the Learning to Breathe curriculum to a volunteer group of high school juniors and seniors.

“I laugh because the first time I taught it, my neighbor, who was in the classroom, spent his time grading papers while I taught. But the second time I taught it, he paid attention—he saw the positive effect it had on his students.”

In fact, the Learning to Breathe classes were so successful in helping students that Kirk’s neighbor decided to pursue Learning to Breathe training for use in his regular classes. His leadership and the positive change in his students inspired other English teachers in the school to implement mindfulness in their own classrooms. Now hundreds of high school students are being taught the basic principles of mindfulness.

Now, fourteen months since Kirk brought mindfulness into the school district, over 50 teachers and counselors have completed training and are incorporating mindfulness into their lives and profession. The impact appears consistent with schools across the country that have adopted mindfulness practices in the classroom: students seem to exhibit decreased anxiety, lower stress, better self-regulation, improved social interactions, and an overall improvement in academic performance.

Kirk’s impact is creating a ripple effect across the entire school district with its 85,000 students. Mind & Life is grateful to have played a part in this story and is humbled to see how our mission has come to life: the 2018 Mind & Life Dialogue provided Kirk the insights and inspiration to take action in his own community. Kirk is making a difference by reaching students, teachers, and schools in ways that can help address today’s challenges.

The 2018 Mind & Life Dialogue that inspired Kirk is now available as a multimedia site, the “Education of the Heart” Digital DialogueThe second of our digital dialogues, “Education of the Heart” is a free collection of presentations and discussions, shared through video, images, and text, featuring the Dalai Lama and experts in the field. Those experts include Dr. Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, who will be joining us in 2020 as a presenter at both our Summer Research Institute and our Contemplative Research Conference. Parents, teachers, researchers, and anyone interested in youth well-being and education will benefit from the Dialogue content, as well as the extensive resource list, which includes books, articles, curricula, and at-home activities.

In his book Beyond Religion, the Dalai Lama says “it is down to the youth of today to make a better world than the one which has been bequeathed to them. Much rests on their shoulders.” At Mind & Life, we have deep appreciation for Kirk and the many others who work in their own communities to make a better world through the support and education of our youth.

Kirk Benson (far left) with a local school district MBSR class.