A Pedagogical Innovation: Mindfulness Practices in and out the Classroom
I first feel compelled to offer a disclaimer that the innovation I have am offering is not a technological innovation in the “high tech” sense nor is the thing itself an innovation; rather, I am offering an innovative use or application of a practice that is not traditionally associated with pedagogical practices in the West. This practice which I will herein refer to as mindfulness gives both teachers and learners tools to, as Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “keep one’s consciousness alive,” to be conscious of walking when walking, of breathing when breathing, of reading when reading, of writing when writing (11-12). In his book Wherever You Go There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation for Beginners, John Kabat-Zinn offers a friendly definition of mindfulness: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” (4). Although mindfulness is “the heart of Buddhist meditation,” the bearing of mindfulness on secular and pedagogical paths has little if anything to do with Buddhism or becoming Buddhist, but, as Kabat-Zinn offers, “it has everything to do with examining who we are, with questioning our view of the world and our place in it, and with cultivating some appreciation for the fullness of each moment we are alive . . . with being in touch (emphasis added)” (3-4). I realize that this must sound rather new-agey, and the connection of mindfulness and pedagogical practices and instruction design remain unclear, but once we begin to pay attention to the particular things we want teachers and learners to do in and out the classroom, mindfulness practices become a means and an end with those goals. That being said, I am offering a handout developed by Dr. Asao Inoue (University of Washington, Tacoma) and myself that, in its present form, is tailored for the writing and composition classroom; however, mindfulness practices can be used in any classroom across the disciplines and grades, and its widespread application and ease of adaptability make this innovation easily adoptable, but I will speak in more detail to the adoption and diffusion of mindfulness in the classroom following the handout.
Reading and Writing as Mindful Practices
Listening. We take the act for granted, but what do you do when you listen to a text, or another person speaking to you, or something on your PC? What is happening in your head as you listen to someone else say something to you? What is happening in your mind as you read these words? Are you fully and undividedly listening to the words on this page as you read them in your head? Chances are, if you are like almost everyone else on the planet, your attention is divided to some degree. You may be reading these words, but you are also thinking of other things.
Have you ever read a page or even a chapter from something, finished reading or paused, then realized that you don’t know much of what you had just read? Your mind was multitasking as you were reading. This multitasking of the mind actually keeps you from reading academic and dense texts carefully and critically, even to the point of not really knowing what you just read.
If you are like most people, there are other voices in your head as you read a book or this page – or do anything in your daily life, really. These voices, we might say, are an ongoing, running monologue to yourself about anything and everything, your own voice speaking to you in your mind as read these words, telling you that you are hungry, or that you should have worn that green shirt today, or that you don’t really understand the point of this class, or that you’re anxious about a job or dating prospect, etc. This is normal. Everyone’s mind does it. In fact, one might say it is how our minds work, but they don’t always work this way. Occasionally, our minds are silent for a moment. In that moment, we aren’t thinking of anything. There is no monologue. When this happens, we are the most aware and alert to things around us, including words. Many have found ways to silence the monologue intentionally so that a deeper awareness of what is happening in one’s life, such as reading a text, can occur, a deeper awareness of what these words mean and don’t mean, what they could mean, and what might be underneath them, assumed by the writer, tacit or implied. This kind of listening to words we read in silence takes practice, but it’s easy to begin doing.
Mindful reading is reading when your mind is most calm and silent – that is, reading when the monologue has stopped. The key is to find some practices that will help you stop the monologue, at least for a time, so that you can read a text more carefully, more focused, more aware of its nuances and possible meanings. To mindfully read a text, do the following before you begin any session of reading:
- Find a quiet, distraction-free place with little or no ambient noise or motions in the background. This is important. Sounds and sights around us in small ways take our attention away from a text when we read, even when we don’t realize it. Silence and the absence of motion in the environment are your friends when trying to silence the monologue and find focus and awareness when reading.
- Create a comfortable, upright bodily position in which to read. If we are going to read with purpose, it makes sense to get our bodies into a position of intention. When you are upright and your back is straight, your diaphragm has more freedom to articulate your lungs—physiologically, you can get the most oxygen to your brain, helping your body stay alert. It’s not really a good idea to read lying down. That bodily position is not conducive to alertness and awareness, which is important for carefully reading a text. When you lie down your body begins to shift into rest and relaxation mode. This might work well for you for casual or leisurely reading, but reading academic texts is a different kind of act with different purposes requiring a different type of agency, namely more focus and attention than you might be used to giving while reading.
- Spend 2-5 minutes just breathing mindfully. There is lots of research that shows the benefits of mindfulness practices. One of the benefits is helping one to focus just on the body so that the mind’s monologue subsides. There are several ways to mindfully breath, but to start, try sitting in your comfortable, upright position, closing your eyes, and breathing in through your nose, deeply and slowly, then out through your mouth slowly and completely. As you breathe, notice the feelings in your body, in your nose as the air comes in, in your belly and throat as you exhale. Just pay attention to those physical sensations. When your mind begins to talk to you, notice the thought and let it go. Don’t pursue it or worry about it. Notice and release it. It’s okay to have thoughts during mindful breathing. If you practice this, you’ll find it easier to clear your mind, but clearing your mind is not the point. The point is to focus on your body, on your breathing. Just be right there in the moment, breathing.
- If you can, ring a bell or chime and focus on the sound. By focusing on the sound of the bell as it fades, listening to it, following the sound as it gets softer and softer, you will notice that your mind becomes quieter. Your mind is busy listening to that sound as it fades, searching for hints of its tone. You can repeat this several times. The reason this activity works to help quiet your mind and move you toward a more focused awareness is because of the silence. The silence is actually more important than the sound of the bell. In a sense, you are really listening to silence, which helps your mind settle and focus.
The interconnectedness of mindfulness practices and reading and writing well go hand-in-hand, but I believe using mindfulness practices as a way to prime teachers and learners for literacy events—which require both physical and mental presence—can be endlessly effective across the disciplines (including STEM fields which also require highly focused thinking and attention to detail). As I mentioned, the widespread adaptability and application of mindfulness practices make the odds of this innovation being adopted highly likely; simply put, it is simple and easy to apply to your pedagogy. But this is not the only reason why I believe mindfulness practices will be readily adopted by those who give it a chance.
Mindfulness practices have a distinct relative advantage over pre-existing technologies, namely that mindfulness practices are not replacing anything! They merely offer a set of tools for teachers and learners to achieve focus and peace which enables more productive and meaningful intellectual and physical labor. We are at risk to lose nothing other than the short amount of time we spend attending to ourselves in advance of our labor, but if mindfulness practices can help us be not only more productive during our labor but to feel better about our labor throughout the process, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Mindfulness practices are also compatible with existing values and practices with one small caveat. You’ll notice that I am careful with my language by naming these tools “mindfulness practices” rather than meditation. The word meditation carries with it spiritual connotations, and it is not the intent of these pedagogical tools to get teachers and learners to have a spiritual experience (although if they want it to a spiritual experience, that’s perfectly fine too); rather, this is a pedagogical tool to help teachers and learners become more aware of what they are doing when they are doing it, to truly be alive and present in the moment.
Seeing as though mindfulness practices only take time—a few minutes per day to begin with—there is no real monetary cost. There is only the opportunity cost of a few minutes’ worth of time, but again, if mindfulness practices can help us be more productive and at peace with the time that follows, the return on investment of that few minutes is exponential. Of course it goes without saying that since implementation of mindfulness practices in the classroom is essentially free, so too can be your own personal trial of mindfulness practices. With an open mind and a few minutes’ worth of time, you can quite easily keep a journal in which you reflect on the quality and intensity of your intellectual and/or physical labor in tandem with mindfulness practices then observe the results thereof over time. You can have your learners do this as well. In fact, having learners (and teachers for that matter) reflect on the quality and intensity of their labor—to be aware of these things—not only makes the effectiveness of mindfulness practices quantifiable over time, it is the only way to identify what goes well and what doesn’t go well so that we can seek improvement with our labor. Observing ourselves, indeed, is at the very heart of mindfulness.