Reflections on the Benefits of Mindfulness for Teachers and Students: A Dialogue

Greetings, blog readers! This week’s Sunday Meditation is a bit different. Instead of being single-authored, Sheila Kennedy and I teamed up to offer a running dialogue about the ways we believe students and instructors benefit from learning mindfulness practices within our courses. We hope we can offer some gems of insight for any readers interested in integrating mindfulness practices in their courses, readers who may be wondering: why take the leap? Does our dialogue move you to mindful action? For readers who have already integrated mindfulness into their courses, we hope you’ll chime in and let us know your experiences in the comments below.

Today’s structure is just one of the many formats welcome on this blog. If you have an idea and would like to contribute to our Sunday Meditation series, posted on the last Sunday of every month, please contact Christy Wenger at cwenger@shepherd.edu.

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Christy:

Five years ago when I first integrated yoga in my first-year writing courses, I asked my students why I might have designed the course to incorporate this contemplative exercise. Mine was a genuine question at that point: we were just a week or so into the course, so my students did not know much more about what to expect from the pairing of yoga and writing than I did at that time—I just had an idea and enough courage to act on it. Most students had never practiced yoga before; many had no experience with any contemplative practices. Yet, they filled up our chalkboard with reasons that included developing class community, learning to pay attention and finding ways to slow down.

While I have since developed my own “list” of reasons why I continue to integrate contemplative practices like yoga into my writing curricula, I also believe that the benefits of contemplative practice are unique and situational to each class, depending on what the members bring to our community and what needs they have as learners. I also believe that “mindfulness” can be an umbrella term for many of those benefits. Thich Nhat Hanh defines mindfulness as applied to the seemingly trivial act of washing the dishes:

While washing dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first glance that might seem a little silly: why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that’s precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing this bowl is a wondrous reality, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There’s no way I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves. (Peace is Every Step 4-5)

When I read Hanh’s words, I wonder what it would mean to approach writing as Hanh does washing dishes. Watching my students practice yoga, meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction in my classes and reading their reflections of how they paired these activities with their writing processes has helped me to form some initial responses to this question. Here are just two of the ways I’ve seen students benefit from contemplative practices:

 

  • Students gain access to a counter-narrative that encourages slowing down and monotasking. It’s no secret that our culture values a fast-paced, “always on” lifestyle. Like us, so many students feel that in order to be productive, they need to multitask. Of course, the best writing is often done when we slow down enough to listen to our sources deeply and take the time to interrogate our responses. Research shows that our attention is finite, and so if we split it between writing and some other task, we’re limiting our attentional abilities toward the demanding task of writing. Slowing down produces better thinking, and, in turn, better writing.
  • Students can bridge their personal and academic lives. We teachers often tell our students that they need to be proactive learners and to take responsibility for our classes. I want my students to make our class a priority. The reality is, however, that many students are taking a full schedule of classes while also balancing a job, financial and social pressures and, sometimes, even caring for their families. Learning mindfulness can help our students in class and can also help them deal with the pressures outside of class. This should matter to us: if our students feel more in control of their lives and can get a handle on their stressors, they will not only be happier and more pleasant in the classroom but they will also be more open to learning.

 

Sheila:

Christy, I appreciate the connections you make here for the ways mindfulness practices can work for our students and their writing. I especially appreciate your emphasizing how the “slowing down” that mindfulness offers to writers can improve both their writing and their lives. Slowing down…what a challenge this is for us and for our students. And to officially invite and value this slowness into the classroom, as an experienced practice—what a gift, one that that can linger long after the course is over, one that opens the door to sustained practices and ongoing subsequent benefits.

I also appreciate the way you modeled mindfulness right from the start, by acknowledging the uniqueness of each member of the community and the needs of individual learners and asking for their input as you begin. That’s present moment mindfulness in action.

Another benefit for students—or perhaps this expands on the bridging you note: integrating mindfulness in our courses offers students a clarity, and in turn a confidence, in the way they understand their observations, gut feelings or felt sense, and life experiences. This “first person” learning processed through the lens of mindfulness, and officially validated in the classroom, is illuminating, invaluable.

I’m beginning to think of teaching mindfulness in terms of our responsibility to students. That is, given the “umbrella” nature of mindfulness, as you say, how can we teach writing, or anything for that matter, without offering mindfulness as a framework out of which to learn, whatever the content or skills or strategies may be? It’s that important; it’s that potentially transformative.

What other ways do students benefit? Perhaps others will want to share their thoughts.

 

And now, let’s consider ways teachers benefit from integrating mindfulness practices in a course.

 

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Last summer, I enrolled in the Mindful Schools Curriculum Training Program to learn more about how to offer a structured mindfulness practice in my own courses. A mandate made clear right from the start of the program: the teacher must practice; there’s no substitute for practice. Gil Fronsdal, a meditation teacher, author, and founder of the Insight Meditation Center of Redwood City, CA, suggests much the same when he talks about folks who read about meditation and mindfulness practices more than they actually practice. I so appreciate this emphasis, this reminder, indeed this permission to practice in the midst of our busyness, and it speaks to the first benefit for teachers who integrate mindfulness practices in their courses:

 

  • One’s own mindfulness practices improve, and thus one’s teaching of mindfulness. Perhaps the greatest benefit, for me, has been the improvement of my own meditation practice, and how that improved practice then resonates with everything else—my teaching, relationships, work priorities, other life choices—everything. My improved practice makes a tangible difference in the way I show up in the world—the choices I make, the ways I respond—a way of being. So I have my students to thank for improving my practice and my life. There’s a wonderful reciprocity there that students are likely not aware of. Also, I can’t show up and preach/teach mindfulness practices in the classroom if I’m not practicing myself. It’s about accountability. Ethos matters, and students know. And, the more I practice, and the better I practice, the more I understand the subtleties of what the practice renders, which in turn provides a level of confidence to the teaching of mindfulness, a confidence I can only get from actual practice. Just as writing teachers must write in order to experience what and how to teach, mindfulness teachers must practice mindfulness. And why not—given the benefits.

 

  • Another benefit for teachers, or for teaching-learning: improved class discussions and investigations. In the context of a writing course, I’ve found it immensely helpful—generative—just the very idea of “paying attention” to what and how we’re paying attention to whatever we’re addressing for the day, and making the activity of paying attention an object of our investigation, our attention. Students enjoy this kind of meta-cognitive work. They’re ready for it, feel challenged by it, and it provides an extra-interesting energy to the discussion. There’s always that extra layer to interrogate, which can reveal so much, and which is both in concert with rhetorical inquiry itself and yet somehow “beyond” or hovering above or behind particular rhetorical situations—extra-rhetorical perhaps. (Is that possible?!)

 

Christy:

Sheila, I love how you talk about your practice of meditation above, noting how it “makes a tangible difference in the way I show up in the world.” I think this is a great way to characterize what changes in the contemplative classroom for the teacher. One of the benefits of utilizing contemplative pedagogy for my practice as a teacher is the reminder that “showing up” is not the same thing as stepping foot in my classroom. Rather, it means I must gather the same kind of full presence I aim for in my practice of meditation and yoga so that my teaching becomes another personal practice of mindfulness for me. For years, I’ve had a note on my syllabus for students outlining the difference between attendance (being a warm body in the seat) and participation (genuinely contributing). It only makes sense that I take this note to heart myself.

The consequences of seeing my teaching as a mindfulness practice, I think, are twofold. First, I’m reminded of what yogini Judith Lasater says, that we must “live our yoga.” To me, this means that we must find opportunities to practice mindfulness in our everyday lives. As a teacher, then, mindfulness can be both a personal and a professional practice, one that enhances the spaces of my home life and my work life. Second, it requires me to be a more engaged reader of my students and to resist the temptations (and, therefore, to sidestep the limitations) of teaching on autopilot. Simply then, I believe that I’ve begun to “show up” to my classes differently. I’m more sensitive to the needs of my students as they change throughout the semester; I’m less likely to assume that quietness on their part means they are disengaged rather than overworked, confused or just plain tired; and I’m also more likely to recognize the way my own stressors outside the classroom affect my teaching.

Finally, this approach to teaching with mindfulness connects to what Arthur Zajonc said at a Association for the Contemplative Mind in Higher Education conference I attended about three years go: that you can teach contemplatively without ever asking your students to practice a contemplative art. Addressing the group of educators at the conference, Zajonc said if we came into our classrooms with mindfulness as our intention, our students would follow our lead and the learning environment would change accordingly. This morsel has stuck in my mind since then. It’s taken me at least these three years to begin to appreciate that all my classes are “contemplative” even I’m not actively integrating yoga and meditation, either by choice or course constraints, because I’m teaching them. Intuitively, you address this above when you mention how our ethos as teachers changes when we teach contemplatively. If I dwell in mindfulness, if I show up to my classroom with the intention of modeling presence and spend time helping my students learn how to pay attention, then I am just as much a contemplative teacher in those moments as I am when I teach students how to meditate. I’m wondering if our readers find this a provocative way to think about teaching with mindfulness? Does this change what we characterize as contemplative pedagogy?

Obviously, I’ve found many benefits of teaching with contemplative pedagogy, ones strengthened by my own practices of yoga and meditation—on and off the mat. So has Sheila. But that isn’t to say that there haven’t been challenges along the way. In next month’s Sunday Meditation, Sheila and I will discuss some of the challenges and risks of teaching with mindfulness and integrating mindfulness practices in our courses, so stay tuned!

Happy Sunday!

 

Sheila and Christy

 

 

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