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Classroom Implications of Mindfulness

Tomorrow's Academy

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Mindfulness opens the mind and gives space for new understanding.  It is the essential contemplative practice for the academy and, not surprisingly, the practice most widely incorporated into higher education.



The posting below looks at the role mindfulness practices can play in your courses particularly if they deal with stressful or controversial material. It is from Chapter 5, Mindfulness, in the book, Contemplative Practices in Higher Education: Powerful Methods to Transform Teaching and Learning, by Daniel P. Barbezat and Mirabai Bush. Published by Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Brand. One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200, San Francisco, CA 94104-4594. []. Copyright ©2014 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Colleges Try New Approaches to Post-Tenure Review 



Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Classroom Implications of Mindfulness  


Mindfulness is being aware in the present moment, not judging but accepting things as they are - everything that arises: the sound of voices outside the window, the text that seemed so dense when you first read it, the blank page waiting for your paintbrush.  You still have discriminating awareness, you can still notice whether, for example, a poetic metaphor in your assigned novel wakes up your senses or is a tired cliché.  In fact, your discrimination is more refined because you are not brining a prejudgment to the situation. This way of being, and it does become a way of being and thinking and acting, allows every moment to be fresh - a moment we can learn and grow from.  Mindfulness opens the mind and gives space for new understanding.  It is the essential contemplative practice for the academy and, not surprisingly, the practice most widely incorporated into higher education. 

Witnessing and Welcoming: Being Present with Difficult Issues 

Think about how overwhelming environmental issues like climate change and shrinking water supplies are to young college students looking at the future.  Many just want to look away.  At American University, in a course on practical environmentalism, Paul Wapner added mindfulness and other contemplative practices to help students deal with the difficulties of environmental political action, where there are few victories in a battle against immense odds. "They called my course Introduction to Doom," he says.  Mindfulness became a way for his students to be able to deal with all this bad news.  The mindfulness reduced their stress by allowing the students to be more fully present in the moment, learning to respect and pay close attention to this important but difficult information. "Mindfulness looks at what is.  In politics, we are often looking away.  Mindfulness turns discomfort into inquiry.  It makes us more human, opens up a new part of us not available before."  Now, he says, students understand that "climate change is a great path to inner growth, and working on our inner growth is a terrific path to dealing with environmental issues." 

After teaching Cultivating Mindfulness and Human Rights, a course in the Humanities at the University of North Carolina, Alexandra Schultheis and Gregory Grieve wrote that mindfulness practices worked with the course materials not in a simplistic way to cheer for humanitarianism, but to expand the range of responses possible to human rights violations (including acknowledging a space for silence claimed by sufferers of rights violations, learning to read forms of storytelling that don't conform to expected patterns, cultivating a compassion that clearly acknowledges power imbalances and privilege, and critical thinking about humanitarianism itself).  We were perhaps most pleased about the ways in which contemplative practices allowed the students to delve deeply into the intellectual core of the course, and then to translate that core into their own terms. 

Addressing the difficulty of the subjects that arise in her courses on sociology, women's studies, and Latin American/Latina studies at Vassar, Light Carruyo introduced mindfulness to help students confront the hard issues that inevitably engage their experience as social and emotional beings. In teaching courses in the past, she had found that disregarding the personal and focusing on the text was "infinitely more manageable" but limited the extent of the learning, so she was interested in the effects of mindfulness as part of a "healing form of critical inquiry."  The mindfulness did increase awareness of emotion, which is not always easy for students but helps them understand the issues more viscerally, and the discussions led to a dialogue on the connection between personal transformation and the transformation of the structures of inequality, a dialogue that is alive and well in the civil society activist community. These practices also help students develop their emotional regulation, something especially important in courses with such difficult themes. 

Gurleen Grewal taught mindfulness in a women's studies course in the University of South Florida: "In each class we have silent sittings, quieting the mind via the breath, with basic instructions to observe the flow of thoughts/reactions from a nonjudgmental space - a practice crucial in developing acceptance, tolerance, and compassion for oneself and others.  I like to begin class with five to ten minutes of mindfulness that very gradually increases as the semester proceeds."  These are her instructions: 

* Sitting in your chairs, body relaxed and spine erect, eyes closed, follow the sound of the gong or singing bowl as it reverberates and hums in   space. 

* Follow the ebbing of the sound into silence. 

* Rest in that silence. 

* If thoughts arise, simply observe them. 

* Do the same for any bodily sensations or emotions: simply witness them. 

* If you find yourself getting caught up in your thoughts, return to the awareness of your breath.  Anchoring your attention in your breath breaks  the compulsiveness of thought. 

* Return to rest in silence. 

* Witness and welcome, without getting caught in whatever arises. 

* Simply notice the mental chatter, the resistance to what is. * The meditation ends with the sound of the gong or the bowl.  Gradually open your eyes. 

Shape Shifting: A Mindful Look at Personal Identity 

"Trying to define yourself," said Alan Watts, "is like trying to bite your own teeth."  Nevertheless, readings ranging from the ancients to contemporary psychology demonstrate that humans have always tried to do it.  But Allen Stairs, teaching philosophy at the University of Maryland, wanted to go more deeply into questions like, How do we define happiness?  How do we define well-being?  What constitutes personal identity?  The course he developed, Contemplation, Well-Being, and Personal Identity, gives students a chance to explore these philosophical questions through contemplative practice.  Early in the course, he provides his students basic instruction in mindfulness, which is followed by more extensive instruction from a senior teacher at the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, DC.  In addition to practicing in class, students are required to meditate on their own at least three times a week and keep a journal in which they write and reflect on their practice.  They also study mindfulness from a more empirical perspective through assigned texts and guest lecturers who speak to what is known about the neurological, psychological, and medical effects of mindfulness meditation. 

With this grounding, students explore the connections between mindfulness and self-identity.  In particular, the class examines how the Buddhist notion of identity - that identity is a construct and that there is no such thing as an enduring self - might both complement and complicate Western notions of identity.  They explored the theme that "however valuable the perspective recommended by mindfulness, it needs to be enriched by ways of looking at ourselves that do not rest in the here and now."  They also discussed whether our tendency to see ourselves in narrative terms makes a genuine contribution to our flourishing, even if the narratives are not true at the deeper level of metaphysics. 

Mindfulness and the Arts 


At Syracuse University, Anne Beffel teaches mindfulness to her Contemplative Arts and Society course, which attracts students who aspire to cultivate creativity, well-being, and compassionate connections.  They practice what they call paying attention and opening awareness to their connections with their surroundings and each other. They developed the sitting still contemplative video project, which includes exercises designed specifically for developing close observation.  As part of the Art in Odd Places festival in New York, the City Meditation Crew in white uniforms took their "slow down" philosophy to Union Square, where they slowly constructed a giant mandala from discarded gum wrappers (in honor of Gandhi's birthday, October 2). 

Because many art and design students are particularly hard on themselves and tend to be perfectionists, Beffel stresses the nonjudging that is cultivated through mindfulness, using Pema Chodron's phrase, being "unconditionally friendly to oneself." One student wrote: 

Before this class, I found myself often judging my work while I was creating.  I had a hard time staying in the present moment and allowing myself to relax and enjoy the process. I worried about what others would think about my art.  In this course, I realized that I have gotten away from what I believe to be true art: art that completes me as an artist.  I wanted to get back to the stage where I didn't notice the judgmental opinions of others and simply did art for myself - connected and accepting. 

And others did as well: 

To me, awareness is the feeling of seeing everything as though it were the first time and the last time, at the same time. 

The acts of slowing down, looking around you, listening to someone, tasting a raisin, all these things are alternatives to violence. ... Even though you might not necessarily be thinking "this is non-violent," you are acting in that way and it gives you an alternative. 

 *Beffel is currently the Chair of Visual and Performing Arts at Michigan Technological Universit


Amy Cheng, professor of studio art at State University of New York at New Paltz, sees the inherent connection between the arts and mindfulness:  

"Our ultimate goal in my course is to find the writing strategies that, like meditation, help us to tap the intuitive creative functions of the right brain: to think in complex images rather than in sequential order, to see the whole as well as the parts, to grasp interconnections, correspondences, resemblances, and nuances rather than the bits and pieces and linear, logical patterns." Her students looked at three aspects of creativity in a meditative context: 

* Making something new, original, or unexpected

* Renewing or sustaining what already exists 

* Healing and making things whole 

Mindfulness as Self-Management 


Jeremy Hunter, who teaches at the Peter F. Drucker and Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management at Claremont Graduate University, believes mindfulness should be at the center of teaching in business schools.  That, he argues, is because it improves the quality of attention, and in the modern workplace, attention is key.  It also makes us more aware of emotions, which play an important role in business relationships.  "To me, it's fundamental to how work gets done these days," he said.  Hunter's work is based on many years of meditation study and the work of Peter Drucker, the founder of the discipline of modern management.  Drucker recognized that knowledge workers were the key to economic survival for the developed economies.  He also recognized that although knowledge workers use their minds to make a living, they are rarely taught to use their minds more effectively.  In a series of four seven-week executive education classes, and a separate course for MBA students, Hunter teaches what he calls self-management - "managing your insides so you can deal with your outsides better."  He often starts class with a mindfulness meditation and covers topics like managing emotional reactions and dealing with change.  His graduate students are working in management jobs, so he gives them exercises to apply at work and at home.  One mindful exercise is to look at a very familiar place or person as if it were the first time, mindfully noting every detail.  This practice usually generates astonishment among students at what they no longer see of the familiar.  

During a conversation about the difficulty of being mindful while multitasking, one student reportedly became frustrated with a weekly work meeting where staff seemed more focused on their cellphones than on the discussion.  When he returned to the office and insisted that everyone put their phones in a box before starting, his colleagues initially responded with irritation, but the weekly gathering soon became so much more efficient that it was cut to an hour from ninety minutes. 

Looking, Listening, Remembering: The Education of Reflective Scientists 

Science courses reveal the investigative nature of mindfulness practices.  Arthur Zajonc, teaching physics and the history of science at Amherst College, asks his students to bring their mindfulness to natural and man-made objects: 

First study the physical object carefully: its shape, color, size, structural components, etc.  If you have selected a paper clip, observe its shiny surface, the thickness of the wire of which it is made, its peculiar shape, and so on.  Then close your eyes and imagine it before yourself in detail.  Can you call to mind the exact shape of the paper clip?  If not, go back to the physical object again and make further observations, repeating this until you have a clear mental picture of the whole object. 

After students have engaged with this exercise, they see common objects differently.  They suddenly realize the brilliant design and execution of a paper clip, an object that they have looked at thousands of times before but never actually seen. This enables the students to radically change their approach to the world around them. 

Al Kaszniak teaches psychology at the University of Arizona.  In 2010, he taught The Psychology of Empathy and Compassion: Contemplative and Scientific Perspectives, which included breath-focused mindful attention, mindful listening, and reflective journaling.  The reflective journaling is actually a mindfulness exercise: 

* Before reading, do 10 minutes of breath-focused mindful attention. 

* Don't think about the reading - try to stay fully attentive to the breath. 

* Allow this mindful attitude to remain as you read. 

* After the reading and another breath-focused practice of 10 minutes, write no more than one page describing how the reading relates to your  personal experience.  Be specific. 

* Describe anything you noticed about your experience during the reading. 

As he proceeds through the semester, teaching about empathy and compassion from the perspective of both scientific and contemplative traditions, he introduces practices relevant to the session: mindful breathing when he teaches about attention, loving kindness when he teaches the neuroscience of empathy.  The final session met in a contemplative garden, where they practiced mindful attention and discussed the difference between their meditation in the garden and meditation in other environments, noticing how natural and built environments relate to the expression or inhibition of empathy and compassion. 

Many educators are concerned about the effects of technology and multitasking on their students.  At the University of Washington, David Levy uses contemplative practices as a lens to observe and critique information practices and, in particular, investigate problems of information overload, the fragmentation of attention, and the busyness and speed of everyday life. The basic practice of the course is mindfulness: mindful sitting (attention to the breath) and walking (attention to the feet). Students then mindfully observe an information practice like texting or e-mailing, document what they observe, and reflect on what they documented.  They discovered, for example, that they tended to check e-mail when they were anxious or bored but that reading e-mail only exacerbated their anxiety.  Their practice changed to this one: 

* Observe your own patterns of behavior, bringing attention to body, breath, emotions, and so on. 

* Decide which dimensions of your experience you want to cultivate or minimize (e.g., clarity of attention, fatigue, anxiety). 

* Make conscious choices in order to cultivate some states and minimize others.