Mindfulness in the classroom: It’s not what you think (Part 1)

By Rachael Crowder, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Social Work and University of Calgary Teaching Scholar in Contemplative Pedagogy

When I began my formal mindfulness teacher training in 2006 with Jon Kabat-Zinn (1991), not many people knew what mindfulness was, let alone who Kabat-Zinn was. And you may not know who he is, either (the genius behind translating Buddhist philosophy and psychology into the secular intervention, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction), but I bet you have at least heard about mindfulness. It’s pretty hard to miss it these days—it is all over the checkout counters and magazine racks at Chapters: mindful parenting, mindful cooking, mindful hiking, mindful crafting for crying out loud. Pick up a copy of Time magazine’s special issue on mindfulness, and you might see this kind of mindfulness teaching scenario depicted inside:

Students gather in a darkened room, and the instructor invites them to close their eyes as she gently rings the meditation bell three times. “Pay attention to your breath,” she coos softly …

Mindful teaching in elementary schools has become an entire industry on its own as well, and you may have children in school who are coming home with eye pillows and breathing exercises. You may find your mind drifting to thoughts about your own undergrads, thinking My students’ lives are stressful (so is mine) and I would love to support their wellbeing in the classroom. But mindfulness? I don’t know how or where to begin …

When it comes to mindfulness, ideas about the paranormal, esoteric knowledge and specialized skills may stop any attempt to try it out in the classroom. I think this is because there is some  misinformation and misunderstanding about what mindfulness is, so please allow me to disabuse you of some of these notions. Neither esoteric nor paranormal, mindfulness is actually more like extra-normal (but not in the sense of the extra as in extraordinary) and within the scope of scientific understanding. Mindfulness is something we do all the time, and have done as human beings for at least as long as history has been around. It is simply about paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally (Kabat-Zinn, 1994). The historical Buddha, who took this empirical approach to observing his own mind, which we now call mindfulness, is purported to have advised, don’t take my word for it: try it out for yourself and if it’s useful then use it; if it’s not, put it aside. So in the spirit of empirical research, I invite you to a mindfulness experiment. Read the following instructions all the way through first, then try it; or listen to this guided mindfulness practice:

Simply bring your awareness to one of your hands – turn the hand over and look at the palm as you do this. Your only purpose is to look at the surface of the palm of the hand like you have never seen it before, with a sense of profound yet gentle curiosity. Anything else that comes up in your awareness as you are looking at the palm, you are invited to notice it, then let it go – sensations, thoughts, feelings, emotions, stories – they are all extra to this seeing meditation. So when you notice those other things arising in your awareness, gently let them go and come back to just seeing, in this moment, without judging. If your attention gets momentarily caught in thought, that is not a problem: it is the nature of the mind to wander; that is why when we realize we are lost, we redirect our attention back to seeing in this moment, nonjudgmentally. Just seeing the palm: noticing texture, contours, colour, shadows … sustaining attention on the palm for at least a minute, just observing the mind wandering off, and coming back … over and over again.

What did you notice? Mindfulness is simple, but it is not easy. It requires skill in intentional, attentional awareness and a bit of discipline, a willingness to stick with it. No doubt you noticed that fact during this exercise. There are many benefits to mindfulness that impact both wellbeing and learning that are imbedded in Kabat-Zinn’s (1994) simple definition, so it is worth breaking it down and contemplating the possibilities that it could have for creating not only a supportive learning environment, but student wellbeing.  To reiterate the definition before looking at its components: mindfulness is about paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.

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