Continued: Reflections on the RISKS of mindfulness for teachers and students: A Dialogue

Hi, everyone. You may recall that last month Christy and I discussed the benefits and rewards of integrating mindfulness practices into our teaching, for both students and instructors. This month, we continue our dialogue and now focus on the risks and challenges of integrating mindfulness practices into our teaching. We invite you to join the dialogue by sharing your own experiences and insights about this worthwhile work in the comments.

risk reward



One challenge for teaching mindfulness in the context of our courses is in the overall framing of the work: how do we frame mindfulness practices? Or more pointedly, the question becomes: In my teaching mindfulness in my courses, to what extent am I imposing on students a religious or spiritual worldview? (Somewhat different but related questions include: Can you take the rich, historical, religious and spiritual contexts out of mindfulness practices? Can, or should, historically religious mindfulness practices be “secularized?”)

Indeed a form of the first question was posed at a recent conference session I attended; it went something like this: what do we do about the religious, spiritual contexts of mindfulness practices, especially if we teach in a publicly funded setting? The responses varied from: it’s not appropriate to teach; get permission first; if the setting is K-12, inform parents about the differences between a secular mindfulness practice and the more religious/spiritual; cover over or downplay the religious/spiritual connections; substitute more neutral language, symbols and objects used for teaching; be forthright and transparent about the religious/spiritual connections.

My own response: be forthright and transparent. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founding Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, or more commonly known perhaps, as the founder and foremost proponent of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), has helped me understand and articulate a forthright and transparent frame, one that both includes the rich historical, religious context and also seemingly transcends it. Here’s how he opens the first chapter of Wherever You Go There You Are:

Mindfulness is an ancient Buddhist practice which has profound relevance for our present-day lives. The relevance has nothing to do with Buddhism per so or with becoming a Buddhist, but it has everything to do with waking up and living in harmony with oneself and the world…. Sages, yogis, and Zen masters have been exploring this territory systematically for thousands of years; in the process they have learned something which may be profoundly beneficial in the West to counterbalance our cultural orientation toward controlling and subduing nature rather than honoring that we are an intimate part of it. (3)

Forthright and transparent. Indeed, in class, I express gratitude to Buddha, his followers, and all other religious, spiritual, historical, and present-day contemplatives, for continuing to spread the good news so that each new generation, or to borrow a phrase from Buddhist lovingkindness practice, “all beings,” can benefit from the insights and well-being often rendered by the practice. The “fact” of the matter is mindfulness is yet one more of way of knowing—like reading, writing, collaborating. It’s epistemology—plain and simple. Practicing mindfulness is just one more way we humans can come to know. (Now I realize that Buddhists and other religious contemplatives may think otherwise…that educators shouldn’t be appropriating the practice, that “secularizing” it is limited, inappropriate…would anyone like to grapple with this question?).

So I base the framing of the practice on epistemology, and openly acknowledging its historical religious, spiritual roots, contexts, and uses. How about you, Christy? How do you frame the work?



Shelia, You’ve done a great job approaching what can be a very complicated concern for those of us interested in contemplative teaching: how do we (or do we at all) separate the spiritual implications of mindfulness from the epistemological ones? For me, this is a question that seeps right down into my personal life; it’s not just a matter of professional practice.

As a yogi and as a practicing Christian, I’d never worried much about the spiritual implications of practicing mindfulness despite its historical connection to Buddhism. In fact, I saw my developing mindfulness, attributable to my practice of yoga and meditation, as enhancing my faith. Unlike what popular lore seems to indicate, my deepened practice of mindfulness has not shaken my Christian faith—in fact, it’s recommitted me to it. I’m not alone: Mary Rose O’Reilley writes of how mindfulness can reawaken our standing religious commitments in Radical Presence, where she reflects on how her Quakerism and contemplative practice inform one another.

Even so, when I first started bringing yoga and meditation into my classes, I was worried that students would believe I was trying to force a new religion on them. So, I did find value in teaching my students about MBSR, the “secularized” approach to mindfulness developed by Zinn. Indeed, the passage you quote above, Sheila, is one I’ve often given to students. And yet, over the years I’ve used contemplative pedagogy in my writing classes, I’ve noticed that most of my students are less threatened by mindfulness’ Buddhist roots than I’d originally worried they’d be—and that they are more interested in how mindfulness could be used as an enhancement to their own sense of spirituality—whatever that may be.

Because I am comfortable doing so, I often “come out” in my classes as Christian. When I do, shortly describe how I feel mindfulness has deepened my spirituality and helped me to feel God’s presence in my every day life. A few statements is usually all it takes to cover this subject, but I always tell students to approach me if they’d like more details or want to talk over ways to combine mindfulness with whatever spiritual practice with which they most identify. This has worked well for me. No student has ever reported feeling alienated; no one has ever noted that they felt silenced. Indeed, one of my recent students committed to researching the role of contemplative prayer in Catholicism and another began a practice of Christian yoga as a result of our class. My anecdotal evidence is supported by recent studies completed by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) to document the emotional and spiritual development of undergraduate college students. This report found that of college students “more than two-thirds (69%) consider it ‘essential’ or ‘very important’ that college enhance their self-understanding, and a similar proportion (67%) rate highly the role they want college to play in developing their personal values” (“Executive Study” 6). Another 63% of students want college to provide for their emotional development (“Executive Study” 6). These high percentages give us one more reason to use holistic learning approaches to education (like contemplative pedagogy) in our classes. Students seem to want ways to broach questions of spirituality in their classes.

sun in hands source

What I tend to worry most about now is not the ways contemplative pedagogy may or may not bring a sense of spirituality into my classes, but the stereotype that if my writing students are meditating and doing yoga alongside writing (and perhaps attending to their spirituality in the process), they are not engaging in “serious” learning in my classes. From the perspective of the academy, I’ve amended just about every “touchy feely” quality to my pedagogy that I can! My colleagues are generous and tend to accept my pedagogy and methods without question (and, thankfully, I am tenure-track, which gives me a measure of freedom), but I have had some students look at me with a measure of skepticism because my class looks and feels nothing like the majority of their other courses. I’ve been lucky to have had only a handful of students who have resolved their skepticism into resistance and not a curious openness to try something new. But, I’ve had them. How do I reach these students? How do we “prove” to them that we are, indeed, engaging them in a new epistemology, a contemplative epistemology, and that this one is just as valid as the logic-based Western system they are used to?

I invite our readers to comment on any of the various “risks” we may take as educators and how we might help students approach the “risky” business of learning in new ways. We look forward to hearing from you!

Christy and Sheila



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