Teaching Mindfulness Practices to College Students - Haynes.pdf

Published on May 2016 | Categories: Types, Articles & News Stories | Downloads: 41 | Comments: 0 | Views: 221
of 21
Download PDF   Embed   Report

Teaching Mindfulness Practices to College Students - Haynes.p



The Blue Pearl: The Efficacy of Teaching Mindfulness Practices to College Students
Deborah J. Haynes, Katie Irvine, Mindy Bridges

Buddhist-Christian Studies, Volume 33, 2013, pp. 63-82 (Article)

Published by University of Hawai'i Press DOI: 10.1353/bcs.2013.0015

For additional information about this article

Access provided by University of Leeds (4 Nov 2013 12:27 GMT)

The Blue Pearl: The Efficacy of Teaching Mindfulness Practices to College Students
Deborah J. Haynes, Katie Irvine, and Mindy Bridges University of Colorado Boulder

Between fall 2003 and spring 2011 I integrated contemplative practices into ten courses with a total of 877 students. Nine of these courses carried credit for the core undergraduate curriculum, either in literature and arts or ideals and values, and students elected my courses from a menu of options. Individual courses ranged from 12 to 409 students. During two of these years, I conducted detailed human subject research using a number of surveys, gathering both quantitative and qualitative data with first-year undergraduates on their experiences with contemplative pedagogy. These courses dealt specifically with art and religion, focusing on traditions where the visual arts are intricately connected to religious practice. I gathered more subjective data in all of the other courses, including large lecture courses on world art from 1500 to the present. In general, my students were not majors in art or religious studies, but came from many disciplines within the arts, social sciences, and sciences, including business and engineering. This essay describes the process and results of the research I conducted with two undergraduate assistants, Katie Irvine and Mindy Bridges. Besides summarizing the findings, I also describe student responses to teaching a specific mindfulness practice—the bow—within a large lecture course with undergraduates. It is notable how little actual data exists about student experiences, and this prompted me to undertake the research that forms the basis for this essay.1 I begin with a few comments on my understanding of contemplative or mindfulness practice and my role as researcher. There is no single way to describe or engage in contemplative practice. The Latin contemplari means to observe, consider, or gaze attentively. This definition gives clues about the varied forms of contemplative practice, which include sitting, standing, walking, and lying down; using attitudes of not doing; deep listening, pondering, and radical questioning; guided imagery and active imagination; exercises with the body; focusing techniques such as those developed by Eugene Gendlin; concentrated language experiments with freewriting, poetry, and journals; beholding; and creation of visual images to represent such experiences.2 The

Buddhist-Christian Studies 33 (2013) 63–82. © by University of Hawai‘i Press. All rights reserved.


BUDDHIST-CHRISTIAN STUDIES word mindfulness is often used to describe contemplative practice. In its most basic form, it means moment-by-moment present awareness, which is available to everyone, regardless of religious or spiritual orientation. Broadly understood as methods to develop concentration, to deepen understanding and insight, and to cultivate awareness and compassion, these practices can have a profound impact on a student’s experience both in college and beyond. Specifically, teaching students techniques of awareness, concentration, and means of disciplining their attention is absolutely essential in our era of fragmentation, ever-increasing speed, multitasking, and continuously interrupted attention. While contemplative practices are rooted in the world’s religious traditions, I often tell parents and students that the application of these practices in a secular educational context can enhance the educational experience in unique ways. Students develop new techniques of awareness, they learn to refine their perceptual and observational skills, and they are encouraged to take chances and to foster attitudes such as curiosity and wonder rather than cynicism about the world in which we live. contemplative pedagogy Introducing contemplative practices into the classroom results in new educational practices and pedagogies. For example, in a course titled The Dialogue of Art and Religion my students learn about Russian Orthodox icons, Himalayan Buddhist thangkas, and Navajo sand paintings through studying cultural and social history, religion, formal visual analysis, and creative processes. I define this interdisciplinary teaching as a form of comparative visual studies. I normally teach this class to eighteen or twenty first-year college students. Students also learn about the practices of prayer and meditation that are central to Christian, Buddhist, and Native American traditions through sustained reading and discussion. They read accessible books about contemplative practice such as Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness.3 In each class, we practice simple techniques such as bowing, sitting in silence, breath awareness, and daily writing exercises. Over the past decade my students have talked about how these mindfulness exercises help to foster an atmosphere of respect, noting that they have effectively brought the class together as a whole. Some students have also reported closer connections to me as their professor and less anxiety about their classroom presence. I am convinced that when courses actively create a respectful environment, students learn to listen, write, and argue persuasively from a position of civility, which helps them to become principled citizens. Perhaps most significantly, contemplative practice fosters development of what Martin Buber called “I-Thou” relationships, where other people, events, and things are treated as subjects and not merely as objects for use or enjoyment. As Jon Kabat-Zinn remarked during a lecture at the 2005 Columbia University conference on Contemplative Practices and Education, most of us live, most of the time, in a narrow band of being where we are surrounded by “I,” “me,” and “mine.” We suffer from this narrow focus. How can we get more real? As teachers, how can we ignite passion in our students for this kind of presence, this “be-ing”



in their own lives? This is precisely the work of contemplative pedagogy: it is about waking up and being present to our lives—here and now. In an often-quoted excerpt from Principles of Psychology, William James wrote that “The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. . . . An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. But it is easier to define this ideal than to give practical instructions for bringing it about.”4 Yet this is precisely what contemplative pedagogies seek to do: to describe how to improve the ability to bring the wandering attention back to the moment, again and again. Mirabai Bush, former director of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, identified the goal of such practices and pedagogies as creating “noble woke-up big-heart beings.”5 Such persons become capable of greater compassion and kindness. They learn how to listen to themselves and others and to observe the world. But what does it mean to practice? What is practice? Both a verb and noun, the word means making, doing, and acting. But more than this, it implies discipline, repetition, and habit. The word derives from the Late Latin practice, which refers to the practical as against the contemplative life. How curious that we use this word now to describe contemplation once again. To practice means many things: listening, thinking, and examining the teachings one encounters; praying and meditating; familiarizing ourselves with a new way of being in the world; and acting, applying our insights in daily life. In fact, practice means paying attention to one’s thoughts, bodily sensations, speech, and action, moment by moment. What exactly is going on right now, in the present moment? Whether alone or in the classroom, when we practice meditation or pray, we sit in silence. In our world, silence is rare and hard to achieve. description of research The experience of integrating contemplative practices into the classroom has been enormously rewarding and energizing for me. After many years of teaching a diverse array of courses in the visual arts, religious studies, and women’s studies, I have finally established a closer relationship between my own values and my approach to teaching. My engagement with these issues has resulted in publication of eight articles about pedagogical issues. Since spring 2008, I have co-led three colloquia with philosopher Michael E. Zimmerman at the University of Colorado Boulder on the rationale, efficacy, and means of incorporating mindfulness practices into the classroom. My own artistic practice is increasingly contemplative. Experiences as a yoga and Buddhist practitioner since the 1970s are the foundation of my decision to move toward both contemplative pedagogies and contemplative art practice. In my courses I have repeatedly chosen not to focus on or describe my own background and experiences as a yoga teacher and Buddhist practitioner, but to introduce my interest in contemplative inquiry by acknowledging research that I and others have done about teaching and learning. I will have more to say about this later in discussing the challenges of teaching contemplative practices.


BUDDHIST-CHRISTIAN STUDIES Prior to experiences in 2009, I had neither conducted “human subject” research, nor analyzed quantitative research data. I had no idea how complicated the approval and reporting processes would be for this research. Two undergraduates who had studied with me, Katie Irvine and Mindy Bridges, helped to analyze the quantitative data and selected the most pertinent qualitative narratives from some of the students. I also received invaluable feedback from a group of students I called together informally several years after they had originally been in my courses, and from regular “inksheddings” conducted in larger classes. I ask the students to “shed a little ink” in these one- or two-minute papers, and to give their responses to specific questions about how the course is going. I organized specific courses around a model of mindfulness based in the writing of Thich Nhat Hanh and in research by Shauna Shapiro, Tobin Hart, and others. Fundamentally, I sought to teach students a particular way of paying attention: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally. This definition embodies three dimensions of mindfulness: first, to practice purposely with intentions that set the stage for what is possible; second, to become aware of the many dimensions of attention, including being able to attend to one object for long periods of time, to shift the focus of attention, and to inhibit other thoughts, feelings, or sensations; and third, to develop an attitude of curiosity and openness to awareness. In addition to teaching students how to use meditative techniques to develop skills of concentration and attention, I used a variety of assessment strategies: preand post-surveys, midterm evaluation, end-of-term self-assessment, a survey on life values, and four other anonymous surveys that have been developed by other researchers.6 Together these surveys provided much useful data. The Lifestyle Profile (LP) contains fifty-two questions about all aspects of daily life. The Freiburg Mindfulness Scale (FMS) presents fourteen statements that require stating the frequency of various experiences. The Mindfulness Attention and Awareness Scale (MAAS) contains fifteen questions about everyday experience. The Perceived Stress Scale (PSS) asks ten questions about the individual’s stress level during the previous month. One other survey that showed surprising results was the life values survey. Contrary to my expectations, students reported their top values as family, relationships, and wisdom, while they tended not to be concerned with values such as power, prestige, wealth, and where they live. In our highly materialist consumer culture, I found this notable—possibly a reflection of the fact that young students are not yet part of the adult world where making a living and possibly supporting others is so crucial. The analysis of the four major questionnaires produced inconclusive results. The statistical data that Katie Irvine collated shows changes in student scores from the beginning of the semester to the end, after exposure to mindfulness in the classroom. Looking at the data, it is obvious that many students increased their level of daily mindfulness (FMS and MAAS), and many also experienced a difference in stress (PSS). Even though the second evaluation was conducted near finals, and the stress level of the students may have been higher than normal, many of them still showed a decrease in stress throughout the semester. The data shows that as mindfulness attitudes increase (FMS and MAAS), stress decreases (PSS). In the classroom, mindfulness



seems to have had an effect on the daily attitudes of the students, as well as providing them with better stress management skills. T-tests were conducted on the pre- and post-tests for the FMS, PSS, and MAAS. (A paired sample t-test determines whether the trends are large enough to be considered statistically significant.) When compared, these scales unfortunately showed no significant trends or differences. Because these initial results were not significant, we looked at the Spiritual Growth and Stress Management sections of the Lifestyle Profile to see whether there was a significant change in those scores. Unfortunately, the change was not significant with these tests, either. Although the data did not show significant statistical change throughout the semester, this may be due to other factors than an insignificant trend. For instance, the sample size of forty-three students was small, making it nearly impossible to show an obvious and significant trend. A few students from my classes chose not to participate. The sample size had to be reduced further because, to preserve anonymity, we had asked the students to invent code names they would remember. Unfortunately, some of them did not recall their code names when it came time for the post-test, so comparisons could not be made. Ideally, the study would need to be performed with many more participants. Many of the students in the course indicated that they had registered for the class because of a pre-existing interest in pursuing mindfulness or because of what they learned at the outset in the classroom. For these students, mindfulness pursued in the classroom may not have made a significant difference. To resolve this issue, it would have been wise to include a control condition and sample from students who had neither previously received mindfulness training nor expressed any interest in it. Then, the difference between the pre- and post-tests may have been more significant. qualitative methods During the course of my teaching since 2003, I have experimented with introducing students to thirteen forms of contemplative practice that I garnered from both personal experience and the literature.7 What follows are short descriptions of practices that I adapted for classroom use in my research study. 1. The Bow On the first day of class after all students have arrived, I introduce “the bow” before undertaking any other introductory comments. I ask all of the students to sit up straight, to place their hands on their knees and both feet on the floor, and to soften their gaze toward the center of the room. Arranging the classroom in a circle makes this exercise more meaningful, but it is possible to do it in a larger lecture-style classroom as well. After everyone has stopped moving, I simply bow my head toward the table and ask them to do the same. I then talk about what this means in two ways. Starting that first day, I invite the students to be fully present in class, and to cultivate an attitude of respect for others and the material that we will be studying. We end


BUDDHIST-CHRISTIAN STUDIES the class with the same gesture. Over time, this collective bow becomes a profound symbol of presence and respect in the classroom. I also experimented with ringing a small gong and offering students the chance to ring the gong as well. Students tend to arrive in class on time because they do not want to miss the bow or the opportunity to ring the gong. Experiences with and feedback from students in small undergraduate courses was the basis of my decision to introduce “the bow” in two four-hundred-student lecture courses concerning world art. On the first day of class, I asked students whether they were interested in experimenting with the lecture format of our class. Hearing their resounding “yes,” I explained what the bow is and why I teach it. I began by reminding students that nearly all cultures have a form of greeting, from formal waist bows in China and Japan to the familiar namaste in India, as well as various styles of handshakes, hugs, and kisses elsewhere. I told them that for the past eight years in smaller classes I have regularly taught techniques of mindfulness meditation as an aid to learning and building community in class. The bow is a technique that students have told me was one of the most significant practices we did together. To bow in at the outset of a class means “I have arrived. No matter what else I was doing, I am here now with respect—for myself, for all the others present in the room, for the material we will study and look at today.” The bow was simple. As in smaller seminars, I asked everyone to sit up straight, to place hands on their knees and both feet on the floor, and to soften the gaze. Then I demonstrated the bow. After everyone had stopped moving, we simply bowed our heads for a moment and sat up again. At the end of class we “bowed out.” I asked for student feedback about this and other contemplative practices midway through the semester by soliciting written comments. I presented the results of this feedback in the following class session using visual “word clouds” or “tag clouds” that showed the distribution of responses. Seventy-seven percent of the students described the usefulness of practicing the bow each day with comments such as that it generates respect and a sense of presence, that it focuses individual attention upon arrival and helps prepare the class as a whole to focus, that it unifies the class, that it allows for slowing down and adds calm to busy days, that it clears the mind, and that it creates a boundary from the rest of the day. Seventeen percent reported no particular effect or were indifferent. Six percent of the students disliked the bow for diverse reasons: because they thought it reflected my idealism, not student needs; because it seemed too religious or spiritual in a secular university; because they felt scattered and unfocused; because it felt forced or contrived; because they felt too self-conscious; and because they did not understand this experiment. 2. Six Points of Posture A few classes after introducing the bow in my smaller courses with fifteen to twenty students, I would suggest that they might find it helpful to practice the “six points of posture” as they bow. This exercise adds greatly to their initial concentration when they arrive in class. Many students feel self-conscious and awkward the first few times



they try this, but they have repeatedly told me that over time it helps them to feel connected to the class. First, to establish a stable seat, I ask students to sit at the edge of the chair. Second, the legs should be neither crossed nor stretched out. The feet are directly under the knees. Third, the hands are placed palms down on the legs. Fourth, the torso is relaxed. The spine should be straight, tilting neither to the front nor back, left nor right. Fifth, the eyes are kept open, gazing down at a spot about three to four feet in front of the student. Finally, the mouth should be slightly open, tongue resting against the upper palate. 3. Mindful Breathing Mindful breathing and sitting meditation help to relax and focus the mind. I tell students that just five minutes a day can make them feel more refreshed and energetic. None of us can prevent stressful situations in life, but we can begin to learn how to control our reactions to these situations. Practicing mindfulness can help. I also tell students that many religious traditions teach methods of working with the breath. As we begin, I ask students to adopt the six points of posture. Then, they bring attention to the breathing. Sometimes we observe the sensations of the breath in the abdomen, the diaphram, or the lungs. Sometimes we focus on the light touch of air as it enters the nostrils. Sometimes we count the breath: on the exhalation, one; next exhalation, two; and all the way to twenty-one. Then we start again at one. I remind students that depending upon their state of mind, their attention may wander in either mild or wild ways. As they observe the mind, they should name what it wanders to and come back to the breathing and counting. While every person’s mind is often seemingly impossible to tame, at times we are able to rest in a quiet and calm state that is refreshing. If a group seems especially engaged by this kind of breath meditation, I urge them to look dispassionately at the reactions and habits of the mind. Once they have practiced focusing on the breathing, I suggest that they experiment by using bodily sensations, sounds, or watching thoughts as the point of concentration. 4. Walking Meditation In this meditation, the focus is on the movement of the body while being mindful of the surroundings. Although walking meditation can be effective indoors, I have introduced this practice outside. Because we are on the university campus, I suggest that they experiment walking by themselves. Once, when Thich Nhat Hanh was teaching a weekend workshop at my university, we did an extended walking meditation in a long line on sidewalks throughout the campus. Some of the students talked about how conspicuous they felt, especially when they encountered friends and classmates. So, I advise students walking alone not to engage in tempting conversations if they see others they know. To begin, I ask the students to stand briefly in order to balance themselves and to release tension, allowing the arms to hang freely. Then they should begin walking at a slow but normal pace. As they walk they should place


BUDDHIST-CHRISTIAN STUDIES awareness in the beginning on one part of each foot—big toe, space beneath feet and ground; later, they might try to take note of each step, the lift of the leg, the heel making contact, the roll onto the ball of the foot, other parts of the body, breathing, body temperature, wind on the face, and so on. After doing this, I ask students what they experienced and try to elicit from them the benefits of walking meditation. It helps to quiet and focus the mind, they tell me, and provides an opportunity for personal insights to arise. It develops balance and concentration. It increases stamina for meditation and mindfulness of movement more generally. Walking meditation also contributes to a general sense of well-being by relaxing the body, reviving tired muscles, stimulating circulation, assisting digestion, and minimizing sluggishness. 5. Eye Practices Because my class focuses on the study of art created with religious intent, it is crucial that students learn how to look and how to see. I therefore introduce them to a set of five practices with the eyes that I learned from dancer and teacher Barbara Dilley.8 They are designed to help refine students’ understanding and experience of vision in general. With closed eyes I ask the students to focus on resting and refreshing their eyes, and to consider what internal seeing might mean. With peripheral seeing, I ask them to soften their focus and try to see from the corners of the eyes. Sometimes, looking straight ahead with a soft gaze, it is possible to see almost 180 degrees, and this is an exciting expansion of vision. In our time, with the presence of ubiquitous screens on television, computers, handheld devices, and mobile phones, many students have never truly experienced their peripheral vision. Infant eyes introduces students to the idea of seeing before naming what they see. Is it possible, I ask them, to look at the world as if they have never seen it before? Looking between things offers students a direct experience of both positive and negative space. The world is full of objects that define space, while the area between these objects is known as negative space. Often we fail to notice the unique shapes and forms of this space. Through direct looking, students learn to investigate, study, and absorb the images and symbols in a work of art. Related to these exercises, I introduce students to the distinction between outward sight and inner vision.9 Outward sight involves looking at the world as a set of disparate phenomena. In this process, the eye and mind cannot comprehend or take in everything. Things are seen but not fully registered. There is a constantly roving center of focus. Under the impact of pervasive screens, the eyes roam about, constantly agitated, shifting focal points, creating a game of repeated grasping and releasing of objects, colors, sensations. The outer eye turns attention away from what it does not want to see, though an image may remain in consciousness. Inner vision involves a more complex seeing in all its diversity, with equal fuzziness or sharpness. No part stands out more clearly than the rest, as everything is illuminated with equal intensity and without showing favor. Nothing distracts the inward gaze elsewhere. Training is required in order to cultivate this ability, because



the physical eye cannot usually see like this. Sometimes through sustained attention we can glimpse this direct perception. 6. Beholding After experimenting with the five eye practices, students are ready to learn how to view the icons, thangkas, and sand paintings that are the subject of our class. I teach them how to “behold,” to experience these works of art firsthand. When it is possible, I ask students to pick an artwork up, to hold it in the hands, and to get close to it. If they cannot touch it, then we get as close as possible in order to examine the object. Sometimes this results in an experience of tremendous intimacy; at other times students are awed by what they see. Beholding is a counter both to the usual two-second walk-by experience that characterizes much museum looking and to the analytical dissection of a work of art. I suggest to students that these other methods of viewing art are not intrinsically wrong, but that thoughtful beholding often leads to another kind of encounter. My own love of Buddhist thangkas and Islamic manuscripts and calligraphy, for example, has grown from this kind of sustained beholding. Taking students to museums and bringing actual works of art to class helps to make this a more vivid encounter for the students. Historical study is crucial, but is not the same as beholding, which is a first-person experience of actually looking at a work of art with full attention. 7. Contour Portraits Learning to look at works of art with regard can be a new and profound experience for students who take so much of visual culture for granted. I teach the students blind contour drawing with their classmates as a way to learn how to observe with an attitude of deep respect. Described in detail in Kimon Nicolaides’s book, The Natural Way to Draw, contour drawing involves trying to focus the attention, to merge touch and sight.10 The practice is to move the eye along with the pencil, keeping the body relaxed and not looking at the paper. The most difficult part of the exercise for most students is to resist worrying about the outcome. Students work in pairs, where one student is the “artist,” the other the “model.” Then they reverse roles. Usually I start with one-minute timed portraits. Depending upon student engagement with the exercise, I may repeat it several times, with students changing partners and lengthening the amount of time for each round. Cultivating respect for one another through this exercise, I hope to awaken a greater sense of regard for the art we study. 8. Talisman In this activity, each student brings an object and shares its story with a small group or with the class as a whole. I tell the students to select an object that in some way communicates, symbolizes, or expresses what matters most to that person. It can be an ordinary object, an old favorite, a photo, or something the student has made.


BUDDHIST-CHRISTIAN STUDIES Everyone then tells their stories and we build a “table of inspiration” with the objects. Such a practice allows students not only to practice expressing what matters most to them, but also to develop skills of deep listening to others. This is a most effective way of encouraging students to get to know one another. 9. Freewriting Freewriting has been widely popularized by Peter Elbow.11 To introduce this streamof-consciousness process, I ask students to settle down into a quiet place, with journal or paper, pens or pencils. Then they start to write down whatever comes to mind, not thinking and not judging what they write. I tell them to imagine this process as if the writing implement were writing by itself, without special effort. If they get stuck and do not know what to say, I suggest that they write “I feel stuck.” The key is to keep the pen moving. When practiced during class, I usually time the writing for five or ten minutes. If they are working on their own, I ask students to choose a quiet space where they will not be disturbed and to do a simple breathing meditation to clear and focus the mind. Whether in the group or alone, I suggest that they continue writing, not thinking about where it is coming from, until at some point they know they are done. A final stage, once this initial writing is done, is for each student to read through what he or she has written or to read aloud if they wish to share the experience. Sometimes students find this practice enormously liberating, for at last they can write without the internal critic or judge. While they may be shy to share this writing in class, my experience is that over time students vie for the opportunity to read aloud. This exercise helps to build confidence in a student’s ideas and unique voice. 10. Day of Mindfulness I first considered the possibility of offering students an optional “day of mindful­ ness” after reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s description of how to undertake this practice.12 Nhat Hanh suggests a day that is not unlike the Jewish Shabbat, where work is kept to a minimum or not done at all, and where every activity is undertaken with intensified mindfulness. When I offer this opportunity to students, we usually choose a Saturday. With student work schedules and other commitments, I have also allowed them to attend for half-days. Our activities on such a day of mindfulness have included yoga postures and relaxation, listening to music in a receptive state, sitting, walking meditation, eating together, and simple calligraphy, or what I call “one-stroke” practice. With a bottle of ink, brush, and plenty of paper, each student practices making one long stroke with the brush. We might also work with language, adding text to the inked pages to suggest a literary content. Another option that I have tried is to read Nhat Hanh’s description of a day of mindfulness during class time. Then I ask students to find a two- to four-hour block of time before our next class meeting during which they can be alone. During this time, the student is to observe her- or himself and the immediate surroundings con-



sciously. I suggest that they might go for a walk or go somewhere where they won’t know people. Finally, students write about their experience in a journal, and share this writing in class. One of the most profound outcomes of this experience, according to the students, is the permission it offers for noticing how deeply tired they are, and that this is worthy of their attention. I suspect that most students at eighteen or nineteen years of age are not able to modify their activity level or get more sleep in order to honor this exhaustion. But becoming aware of such lifestyle issues is the first step toward being able to change their behavior. 11. Creating a Work of Art Based on the artistic traditions we study, I usually offer students the opportunity to undertake a creative project. Several times I invited artist Cynthia Moku, an internationally renowned thangka teacher, to introduce Buddhist thangkas and their historical traditions. She demonstrated traditional tigse, the proportional diagrams that form the basis for thangka paintings. Subsequently, students experimented with creating Buddha or Tara faces and other simple diagrams. Some went on to create a work of

Figure 1. Lindsay Bell, Tara Face (following traditional tigse), painting on panel, 11» × 14», 2009



Figure 2. Louis Zeller, Buddha Face (following traditional tigse), painting on panel, 11» × 14», 2009

art based on this practice, while others turned to cultural traditions such as Russian Orthodox icons or Navajo sand paintings (Figs. 1, 2, and 3). Due at the end of the semester, these projects were presented in class. I tell the students that this project is a form of applied analysis. This exercise of copying a work of art is of inestimable value. In general, students lack knowledge of artistic traditions and their continuity. This practice invites instruction and helps to expand a student’s sense of possibility. I also ask students to write a short two- or three-page essay in which they describe reasons for selecting a particular work of art from one of the traditions and analyze that piece with reference to its history, context, ritual use, iconography, the role of the artist and viewer, and the wider function of art. Based on student feedback over several years, this is one of their favorite aspects of the course. Creating their own works of art based on a specific icon, thangka, or sand painting combines creative exploration with studying a particular image in depth. 12. Cultivating Visual Memory To cultivate visual memory is another essential exercise in mindfulness. There are several sources for this idea: first, in the Chinese proverb that one should observe



Figure 3. Corrie Frank, Vajrayogini, painting on panel, 11" × 14", 2009

keenly, then go into the studio and paint; and second, in artist Camille Pissarro’s exhortation to draw on site, then draw what you remember. In his book The Art Spirit, Robert Henri also encourages students to observe the model in one room, then go into another to draw it.13 I sometimes link this exercise to the “beholding” practice we have done in class, when we take more time than usual to study an object or form. In our visually saturated media world, it is very hard to do this, because of the speed of cut-and-paste, of advertising and other images on television and the computer. Yet I think visual literacy is vital for students, and learning to slow down is part of reeducating one’s sensibility. I have experimented with showing students slides of Russian icons, for instance, then having them sketch what they remember. Even if they are not artists or think that they cannot draw, this is an excellent exercise for the mind and memory. 13. Hearing and Deep Listening Sense perceptions and impressions are a form of wealth for all of us, whether we have any inclination toward the visual and performing arts or not. Ours is an ocularcentric age, focused on vision and the visual, and we are therefore experienced at how to use the eyes. In this exercise, I encourage students to experiment with letting the ear be


BUDDHIST-CHRISTIAN STUDIES the main organ of perception, even as they look at the world. How do we tap into inner sources of creativity? Through receptivity, inquiring, and listening. From the Greeks to contemporary mystics, the ear has been as important as the eye. The most obvious way to introduce students to deep listening is through music that evolved in relation to each of the traditions. When introducing the environment for Russian icons, for example, I put on a CD of Orthodox chants that they hear as they enter the classroom. This has been especially powerful after students have had the opportunity to visit a Russian Orthodox church. Similarly, we listen to Navajo chants while studying Navajo ritual and culture. Habituated to hyperstimulation, many students listen to music all the time, just as they talk on cell phones when they are walking or having coffee with friends. In the small classes I teach, I urge students to work with partners or in small groups and to take time to listen to one another. Like some of the other exercises I have described, learning to listen effectively and to hear has tremendous implications for their lives more generally. student voices I believe that highlighting students’ voices is crucial here, and Mindy Bridges helped me identify and select relevant comments from extensive student writing. Therefore, I offer the following examples of narrative student responses about specific practices that I had introduced.14 Alex wrote vividly about several aspects of contemplative practice, including breath work, working with thoughts, and the art project: “By practicing breathing, we can teach ourselves to be mindful. As I was reading Thich Nhat Hanh, I also started to pay attention to my breathing and was mindful of the fact that I was living and breathing while reading at the same time.” “In my life there have been many times when I have practiced meta-cognition, not knowing what it was. . . . I thought of how similar it is to interdependence due to the fact that it has to do with tracing backwards in time, such as in pursuing a thought of thinking of how a desk is made.” In relation to the art project, he wrote: “I inspired myself by what was going on at the time at which I had to do the Buddha . . . Because of this situation, nothing else was floating in my mind and the art project became my feelings on the divorce . . .” He used Chinese symbols to represent his family, because family was the most important value to him. Lindsey focused on meditation with sound: “I was able to block out all other distractions. The gong noise took over the thoughts racing in my head and also other sounds outside and in the classroom. It caused me to completely relax and forget about everything else. Very effective. I have noticed this reaction with sound and music before today. When I listen to music or go to concerts, the sound completely envelopes me and I don’t think about anything else . . . all I’m concerned with is the present moment and the music.” Jackie experimented with bringing mindfulness to daily activities such as cleaning her room: “Today I followed [Nhat] Hahn’s words and moved at a considerably slower pace. I took time to notice what I was putting away and the exact spot I would



return it to. It may have been annoying at first, but in the end it was very beneficial. I felt completely aware of my surroundings in my room, which changed my mind and I decided I would definitely try this again.” On using a smile upon waking: “I felt more in control and freer compared to my previous experience. I was lighter and happier, so now I’m reconsidering [Nhat] Hahn’s techniques to be more legitimate and worth trying.” Corrie, trained as a singer before beginning college, wrote about working with the breath: “I really connected with [Nhat] Hanh’s emphasis on the importance of breathing. As a singer, proper breathing is a key concept—you need to breathe deep and let your stomach expand. This exercise really brought home to me how quiet and peaceful it can be to sit with people in silence, simply breathing. We are so accustomed to all of the chatter around us. It felt really unified to sit in companionable, meditative silence.” We received an enormous amount of feedback about mindfulness itself through soliciting exam answers to the question “what is mindfulness?” The students’ answers demonstrated an impressive understanding of the concept and practice of mindfulness. •  “Mindfulness practice, as a whole, has made a massive difference in how I look at everything in my life. Studying, skateboarding, photographing, and listening to music can all be changed by how aware and mindful you are of the present situation.” •  “After practicing mindfulness this semester, I have become more calm and relaxed in most situations and I am able to enjoy life more because I can appreciate the present moment. I feel overall happier with myself and those ­ around me. And even though I considered myself an aware and observant person before, mindfulness has strengthened that trait in me and I feel even ­ more ­ connected because of that.” •  “While at first I remained very obstinate and close-minded, with more experience I became more open to the meditative effects. I felt at ease and ­ at peace in moments that I typically just blazed through. It made trivial matters seem unimportant and allowed me moments of peace to regain ­ control in such a world motivated and driven by chaos.” •  “I was ashamed I never valued things like this before but I did not worry about my shortcomings in the past, instead I just lived in the beauty and peace of the present.” •  “The last thing that mindfulness has helped me with is this right here. Testing. I have always been nervous about tests and especially tests like this. ­ Big tests, a lot of pressure, time limits. But after learning how to be mindful, I applied that to my studying and carried it over to this test. I was still nervous, but when I put my mind to it, I remember everything.” ­ More than two years after they took my class, these and other effects were mentioned by five students of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. I solicited participation from approximately forty students and gathered eight of them subsequently for a lunch, during which I asked them to reflect about their experiences in the class and since. Lauren wrote that “the class was the first exposure I had to mindfulness.


BUDDHIST-CHRISTIAN STUDIES It seemed strange and unfamiliar, [but] now I’m really interested in eastern religions . . . [I found] the blue pearl . . . the ability to draw inwards and be peaceful shows as a concentrated blue light in my brain . . . We came to respect each other and become a community.” Emma, who had begun her major in psychology, wrote: “I’ve been really stressed out . . . I practice deep breathing and relaxation. Also in my psych classes, people have been working with mindfulness for a lot of disorders. It’s been proven to be more effective than medication.” Matt, a film studies major, said that “In film it’s really useful to encourage actors to be in the moment, and relax in those situations . . . If you just sit, think and breathe, the space has a whole new energy and a whole new light. Now I can engage with it directly. It helps you think so much differently than you had previously.” Anu, who was studying to be an engineer, remarked: “I’m afraid to fly, and whenever there was turbulence in Asia, I just concentrated on my breathing and it relaxed me. I thought back to this class: I’ve never done something so creative.” Phi, a physics major, told us that “I always tell myself to stay positive, it really de-stresses me . . . I wish we bowed in in every class I had. I thought it was weird, but I really liked it by the end of the semester.” All of these students communicated to me that actually practicing mindfulness, both in and outside of class, was more effective than simply reading about it. Such feedback is consistent with the emphasis in contemplative pedagogies on active embodied learning. challenges and research results As a result of all of these experiences, I have identified four major challenges of introducing contemplative practices into the classroom. The first of these challenges concerns the professor’s experience or lack of experience in mindfulness and contemplative practice. On the one hand, as noted earlier, I have been reluctant to share with students my own extensive experience over decades with practices such as yoga asanas and pranayama, zazen, vipassanā meditation, and more recent Vajrayāna Bud­ dhist practice. I have wanted them to approach contemplative practice with an open mind and not to be concerned about pleasing or trying to imitate me. I do not want to shape their expectations and experiences based on my own life choices. Yet, if students ask I always answer honestly about my own circuitous path of exploration. On the other hand, I am greatly concerned when I hear of teachers or professors who have learned about contemplative practice through reading and then begin to “teach” such practices. It may be tempting to think that one can learn alongside the students, but this reflects a naïve understanding of both the power and dangers of engaging students with this kind of inner work. I recommend to anyone interested in teaching mindfulness practice that they first learn for themselves.15 A second more minor challenge concerns finding adequate space for contemplative practice, especially if it is to involve sitting meditation and physical postures in a setting with minimal distractions. Students have complained that there were often too many distractions in the classroom. One student comment epitomized this shared complaint: “I didn’t like doing these practices in the classroom because there were too many distractions and I could never feel completely comfortable.” Even



though I would encourage novice students to embrace those distractions as part of the experience of doing mindfulness practices, it seemed inevitable that some students were simply going to resist and feel annoyed, no matter what I suggested. This was especially true in the large lecture courses, where I did not know the students so well. The physical space and furniture similarly can have a positive or negative impact on students’ willingness to experiment. As I began exploring contemplative practice in the classroom in 2003, I was pleased to be able to purchase yoga mats and two kinds of meditation cushions, and store them in a small room adjacent to the main classroom, which was also conducive to practice. A third challenge concerns institutional resistance. As one of our administrative deans once put it, the litmus test for those of us at secular universities such as the University of Colorado Boulder is “what will it look like on the front page of the Rocky Mountain News,” a former conservative state newspaper. Unless they have direct experience with meditation and prayer, I have found colleagues and administrators to be mostly conservative about incorporating meditation into the classroom. I believe that this attitude may be changing, especially as research such as that of Richard J. Davidson and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin becomes more widely known.16 The fourth major challenge is student resistance more generally. In my courses, this resistance has taken various forms, including self-consciousness, thinking they already know it all, unfamiliarity, fear they are doing it wrong, thinking that the practices are cultish, and not liking the class time. I always have tried to meet such attitudes with an invitation to students to be curious, to embrace new ideas, and to see what they might learn from their own experiences. Related to this fourth issue, my research produced a few “negative” results. Students have communicated a range of responses about what does not work for them. For instance, some students felt that the practices were irrelevant and they could not find a connection to the material we were studying in class. One student said, “I just felt uncomfortable at times when we would engage in the practices because I couldn’t see the relevance and it wasn’t working.” I assume that this student had very high expectations and wanted to see immediate and tangible results of our simple contemplative practices. Similarly, others complained that they had no sense of the practices “working.” I would talk with them about the fact that the ability to concentrate and pay attention to the senses, emotions, and activity of the mind takes time, but some students were impatient and wanted immediate gratification. A few students were uncomfortable exploring something so new, although this negative reaction was overshadowed by the enthusiasm of the majority. As mentioned earlier, when I asked more than four hundred students in a large lecture hall if they wanted to experiment with the traditional lecture format, their resounding “yes!” surprised me. Very few first-year students in smaller classes resisted our experimentation with contemplative practices. Though it was not in itself a negative result, the small sample size of the quantitative study and the fact that there was no control group make it very difficult to claim significant research outcomes. I have limited knowledge about how this research may have affected students’ overall academic performance over the years of their under-


BUDDHIST-CHRISTIAN STUDIES graduate education, because my study of their experiences was conducted over such short periods. Nevertheless, students’ comments from end-of-term self-assessments included encouraging feedback. •  “It made me more aware of the purpose of this course and of my presence in the classroom.” •  “The activities taught me how to relax myself when things become stressful and difficult.” •  “They calmed me down and helped me get focused for the actual learning of the material.” •  “[H]elped bring the class closer together [and] made the classroom feel more like a safe place than an institution.” •  “The chimes and gong were two beautiful sounds that helped me become mindful.” •  “I think that the concept of mindfulness is so applicable to everyday life that I would be hard pressed to completely abandon the idea.” While it would be too simplistic to claim significant positive results from this research, qualitative materials from students suggest that these individuals were profoundly affected by their classroom experiences with me. In their book Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students’ Inner Lives, researchers Alexander Astin, Helen Astin, and Jennifer Lindholm discuss the importance of contemplative practices for the academic, vocational, and spiritual development of undergraduates.17 Although the sample in my formal research study differed greatly from the Astin/Lindholm multiyear study with more than fourteen thousand students at 136 colleges and universities, I certainly had substantial qualitative feedback over nearly ten years that is consistent with the results of their research. A few students have told me over these years that our class encouraged them to become more actively engaged in a spiritual quest. Students repeatedly wrote that they experienced increased empathy and a sense of community in the classroom, as well as qualities such as patience and compassion toward themselves and others. They reported that they gained new ways of managing stress and anxiety. They learned at least a little about how to cultivate positive mental states in the context of stressful lives. Many students claimed that they experienced an increased sense of creativity. And, pertinent to the focus of the research, they deepened their understanding of mindfulness itself. The root of the word “education” is educare, to draw forth, both in the sense of drawing forth from the student what is already present, and bringing forth new awareness and fostering new knowledge. notes
1. Here I must acknowledge two organizations that supported my research over the past decade. The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society provided a fellowship in 2002–2003 during which I researched contemplative pedagogy and revised a course in order to incorporate mindfulness practices for the first time. The President’s Teaching and Learning Collaborative (PTLC) at the University of Colorado, directed by Dr. Mary Ann Shea, supported my ongoing research with students from 2008–2011. As part of PTLC, I had mentors and coaches and numerous opportunities to share my work as it progressed. I also thank Dr. Hal Roth, Brown



University, who provided a response to this paper when I presented it at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting in Chicago, November 18, 2012. 2. An outline of many of these techniques can be found in Tobin Hart, “Opening the Contemplative Mind in the Classroom,” Journal of Transformative Education 2 (January 2004): 28–46. See also www.contemplativemind.org/practices/tree.html for a compelling visualization of the interrelationships of various forms of contemplative practice. On focusing, see Eugene Gendlin, Focusing (New York: Bantam, 1982). 3. Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness: A Manual of Meditation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1987). 4. William James, Principles of Psychology (New York: H. Holt and Company, 1890), 424. 5. This is a phrase used by poet Gary Snyder in Danger on Peaks (Washington, DC: Shoemaker and Hoard, 2004). 6. While I created some of these surveys and self-assessments, I also used four widely available surveys that are used in psychological and educational testing. The Lifestyle Profile, the Freiburg Mindfulness Scale, the Mindfulness Attention and Awareness Scale, and the Perceived Stress Scale are available online from both educational and business websites. 7. I discussed some of these forms in two previously published articles: “Contemplative Practice: Views from the Religion Classroom and Artist’s Studio,” ARTS: Arts in Religious and Theological Studies 20 (2009): 25–33; and “Mindfulness and Contemplative Practice in the Study of Art and Religion, in Meditation and the Classroom, ed. Fran Grace and Judith SimmerBrown (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2011), 223–226. 8. Dilley originally introduced them in a 1996 public performance titled “Naked Face” at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, which was performed by the Mariposa Collective and directed by her. 9. This distinction is developed by Heinrich Zimmer in Artistic Form and Yoga in the Sacred Images of India, trans. Gerald Chapple and James B. Lawson (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984). 10. Kimon Nicolaides, The Natural Way to Draw: A Working Plan for Art Study (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1941). 11. Peter Elbow has written many books that describe freewriting and other exercises. See especially his Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981). 12. Hanh, in Miracle of Mindfulness. 13. Robert Henri, The Art Spirit, compiled by Margery Ryerson (New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1923). I am grateful to Naropa University professor and artist Robert Spellman for his inspired teaching of this and other contemplative practices. 14. In this section of the essay I quote student comments extensively. Each of these students approved my use of their statements, quoted from journals, surveys, essays, and self-assessments, as well as images of their art. Getting such approval was a requirement for conducting human subject research and preparing to publish articles about it. 15. The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, for instance, holds regular workshops for faculty interested in learning about contemplative pedagogy and practice. See www.contemplativemind.org. 16. See http://psyphz.psych.wisc.edu/. 17. Alexander W. Astin, Helen S. Astin, and Jennifer A. Lindholm, Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students’ Inner Lives (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010).

additional resources
Benson, Herbert. The Relaxation Response. New York: Morrow, 1975. Chodron, Pema. Comfortable with Uncertainty: 108 Teachings. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2002.


Richards, M. C. Imagine Inventing Yellow. Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 1991. ————. “The Public School and the Education of the Whole Person.” In Opening Our Moral Eye. Edited by Deborah J. Haynes. Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne, 1996. Stein, Joel. “Just Say Om.” Time Magazine. August 4, 2003: 51–56. Zajonc, Arthur. “Love and Knowledge: Recovering the Heart of Learning Through Contemplation.” Available online at http://www.contemplativemind.org/publications/#academic.

Sponsor Documents

Or use your account on DocShare.tips


Forgot your password?

Or register your new account on DocShare.tips


Lost your password? Please enter your email address. You will receive a link to create a new password.

Back to log-in