• Rene Kulitja listens to a meditation. (Rhett Hammerton.)Source: Rhett Hammerton.
Elders in Central Australia use ancient Indigenous languages to help the next generation master meditation.
Keira Jenkins

12 Apr 2019 - 12:30 PM  UPDATED 12 Apr 2019 - 12:31 PM

For many of us, smartphones can be a source of stress rather than serenity.

In recent years, dozens of different meditation apps which promise training to tame negative thoughts and approach each moment with optimism.

Some promote a popular approach adapted from Buddhist meditation known as mindfulness – the non-judgemental observation of one’s breath, presence and thoughts.

But Wanatjura Lewis was not thinking about herself when she downloaded a smartphone app called Smiling Mind.

“We started because we were thinking of the kids and the families,” the NPY Women's Council director said.

The council is lead by women from 26 Aboriginal communities in Central Australia. It covers 350,000 square kilometres and spans the cross-border regions of WA, SA and the NT.

Women from the council initially used the app with an interpreter to better understand the instructions and eventually requested a version which included meditations in the Pitjantjatjara and Ngaanyatjarra languages.

“We wanted something in our own language because English is hard to understand," Ms Lewis told NITV News.

"Doing things in our own language helps us to make something for our own.”

Nyunmiti Burton, another director from the NPY Women’s Council, said the process of making the meditations taught her to relax and be mindful.

“When I was learning about meditation it was a good time and I felt a calm feeling in my whole body,” she said.

“When I was coming into town for the workshops I would have lots of things going around in my head.

“When we were learning about meditation I could calm down, it made me feel good.”

Addie Wootten, a clinical psychologist and CEO of Smiling Mind, said she was excited at the prospect of adding meditations in Aboriginal languages to the app.

“One of the things that’s really important to us at Smiling Mind is making mindfulness accessible to everyone, and language is a huge part of accessibility” she said.

“When we ran the first workshop with the women in central Australia they really had embraced the concept of mindfulness.

“They wanted to translate a traditional form of mindfulness - the body scan - into Pitjantjatjara to start.

“It was quite a complex process - there are so many words just for one part of the body so it was a bit overwhelming in the beginning to try to find the most appropriate words.

“Then the women became comfortable writing their own scripts for meditations. So they wrote a couple of meditations, one of them was visualising going to a sandhill.

“They’ve also recorded a meditation for kids. The women found the meditations helpful for themselves and the hope was that they would be just as helpful for their children.”

So far, the meditations are being used at three schools in the APY Lands - Indulkana Anangu School in Iwantja, Mimili Anangu School and Pukatja School in Ernabella.

Angela Lynch, NPY Women’s Council Ngangkari program manager, said the initial feedback from the schools is overwhelmingly positive.

“They said that the kids loved hearing their own language,” she said.

“It’s early days and we hope to follow up with an official feedback process but teachers and students both seem to like it.

“They’re happy the community has produced something they can play at the schools.”

Smartphones can increase stress in many ways - encouraging users to compulsively check social media or email, fire off text messages or tapping the screens playing the latest game. Mediation apps can, at least momentarily, encourage phones to be used for something more soothing.

Ms Burton said the meditations have been a useful tool to use before meetings.

“When people come to the meeting they are tired and grumpy and they don’t want to be there,” she said.

“Then you play the meditation and people will listen and pay attention. Afterwards their heads are clear and you can start the meeting.”

Ms Burton said it’s also a great resource for children, and their teachers and families.

“A lot of kids can be difficult,” she said.

“It can be hard to communicate and to get them to listen. The kids won’t listen at school, they wander around at night and their families worry about them.

“We hope the meditations can be used at school to get the kids to calm down and listen.

“Families can also use the meditations if they need to get the kids to calm down and listen and that might be able to help them to learn to do the right thing and pay more attention.”

Dr Wootten said she would love to see meditations being created in Indigenous languages from around the country.

Smiling Mind has already been working with school children from the Northern Territory town Katherine who designed meditations in the Kriol language for the app.

“We were really lucky to work with the NPY Women’s Council who are so passionate about mindfulness,” Dr Wootten said.

“We’re always open to working with Aboriginal communities but it is a complex process to go through.”