Newsletter #1 Human bells of mindfulness
The life of teachers at school can be frenetic. How can we remember to slow down and pay attention to the present moment? Several years ago Ann, another experienced teacher and I were leaving an opening meeting for new teachers, where I had cautioned them to carefully monitor the number of extra duty assignments they took on. Ann remarked to me that even without any extra responsibilities, life at school was already too full. I agreed and made a suggestion, which I thought could be helpful to both of us. “Every time we see each other this year, no matter where we are and what we’re doing, let’s stop, breathe in and out slowly three times and smile to each other.”
Ann was not a meditator and was not familiar with mindfulness practice. However, this idea appealed to her. We honored our agreement for the entire year and grew closer in the process. Eventually Ann became curious about how the idea of this practice had come to me. I told her about my mindfulness practice and about using a bell of mindfulness as an invitation to stop and come back to the present moment. “We are human bells of mindfulness for each other.” Mindfulness struck a chord in Ann, and she went on to attend days of mindfulness and mindfulness retreats by herself and with family members.
Running energy is so strong that this practice does not work for everyone who is attracted to it. Recently I tried the practice with a friend who was also very clear that his life was too full. However, this colleague had difficulty stopping to smile, even for a moment. I suggest that should you find a colleague who wants to give the practice a try, you propose a trial period of a couple of weeks to see whether it works for both of you.
Newsletter #2 Meditate before tests
Quizzes, tests and exams
are major sources of stress for many students. Some come to class already
so stressed out that their ability to show what they know is compromised.
My setting aside five minutes for meditation before the start of quizzes, tests
and exams has proved to be very beneficial for many of my high school math
students. I start this practice before the first quiz by asking the class
if anyone feels nervous. When hands go up, I tell the class that we'll do
a short meditation aimed at reducing stress.
The meditation is in two parts. We turn out the lights, and I ask the students to sit, eyes closed with their bodies erect but relaxed. In the first part of the meditation, the students turn their attention to their feelings, noticing any nervousness, excitement, worry, etc. and simply
letting it be there. Experiencing these emotions is natural. While some emotions aren't helpful, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with them. Learning to accept these emotions as natural parts of ourselves, helps us avoid magnifying their effects on us.
On the other hand, there is more to the students' experience of mathematics than this quiz and these feelings. So, I next instruct the students to change their focus and tune into a time when they had a very positive experience with math. This may be a recent course, project, or activity or, perhaps, a memory of learning to count or tell time. Sitting with feelings of accomplishment for a couple of minutes readies the students to begin the quiz with a positive mindset. I further suggest that if students find themselves getting nervous as they work, they stop, close their eyes and slowly breathe in and out three times, getting back in touch with positive experiences.
Here is an end of the year observation from a 10th grade student:
During the course of this year the meditations at the beginning of class and before tests and quizzes have really taught me to relax. At the beginning of the year I would get nervous before tests and quizzes because I would quickly try to review everything we needed to know, but for the second half of the year, I learned to clear my head. More importantly, I learned to breathe! I learned how to clear my mind and trust that I would remember all of the theorems and formulas. When I was able to clear my head and relax, I made fewer and fewer mistakes.
As this quote suggests, meditation, once tried out by the students was not mandatory. I asked students to put away notes and books and silently use the several minutes before the quiz or test as they best saw fit, meditating or thinking about the math they had learned or about anything else. Most, like this student, ended up finding that meditation was their best option.
Newsletter #3 The importance of community
One of the things “Our experience tells us” that you’ll find on the Mindfulness in Education Network (MiEN) Website is that “To effectively teach mindfulness requires a solid mindfulness practice.” It will not work to ask students to do as we say not as we do. The solidity of our practice is quite visible to our students. If we lose our equanimity, they see it. If we fail to use compassionate speech, they hear it.
What can we do to make our mindfulness practice more solid? The answer I and most mindfulness practitioners I know have found is practicing with a community. The community may be a meditation group, a yoga group, a prayer group, or a group engaged in some other contemplative practice. It may be a religious group or a secular group. Communities help our practice in many ways. They provide a place to practice on a regular schedule. This serves to strengthen our accountability and commitment to our practice. Our practice benefits from others in the community who share their practice with us. We can go to our community with the challenges facing us in our practice and get help.
There is much to be said for finding an existing community in our area where we feel at home. However, if there are other educators in our institution who have an interest in contemplative practice, forming a group that meets before or after school or during lunch can be a tremendous support. You might organize such a group originally as a study group, using a text such as Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach or a book with a secular approach to mindfulness such as Jerry Braza’s Moment by Moment Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Coming to Our Senses. Whether we are already practicing in a community, trying to find or start one, or unsure about how to get started, joining the MiEN listserv, is to join a virtual community of 325 people interested in just what you’re interested in, a community that can give you encouragement, answer your questions, and let you know that you are not alone.
Newsletter #4 The conditions are perfect
Several years ago, after a particularly challenging fall semester, I spent the week after Christmas at Thich Nhat Hanh’s Maple Forest Monastery perched in the snow covered hills of Vermont. Even in that beautiful, peaceful place it took me several days to fully relax and regain my equanimity. A day or two later I suddenly realized that all too soon I’d be returning home to my job. This thought unsettled me, and I sought counsel from Sr. Annabel Laity, the abbess of the monastery.
I described my anxiety to Sr. Annabel, explaining how after every retreat I would return home to Maryland and live more slowly and mindfully, in touch with the beauty around me. At least I would for one day, maybe for several days. But I was like a tire with a slow leak. By the end of my first week home, I’d be so caught up in the flurry of my home and school life that friends who hadn’t known I’d been on retreat would never have guessed that I had been (if you’re a teacher, perhaps you’ve had similar experiences returning to school after a relaxing vacation).
When I finished talking, Sr. Annabel laughed. “Richard,” she said, “you know that mindfulness practice is the practice of the present moment. The present moment is determined by many causes and conditions. You are here at the monastery practicing the Maple Forestpresent moment with the causes and conditions you find here. You shouldn’t expect to do Maple Forest practice in Maryland.” Then she added, “Here is the good news. The causes and conditions back home are perfect for the Maryland practice.”
I’ve often recalled Sr. Annabel’s words of wisdom. When I have a bad day, when I have a difficult student, when I have a difficult class, I try to stay in touch with the fact that there is really nothing wrong. It’s only that the practice called for isn’t the practice I was hoping to do. Often the practice called for is that of compassion, starting with compassion for myself and then compassion for the student(s). Patience is another important practice called for by many difficult situations. Additionally, Thich Nhat Hanh recommends the practice of asking, “Am I sure?” This goes hand and hand with being patient. All of these practices contribute to my looking deeply at what is happening inside and outside myself, to better understand the causes and conditions affecting the present moment.
To better understand what is going on for students, I have also learned to ask them directly. Once, students in one of my 9th grade algebra classes told me that they were unfocused in class because we met right after lunch and they were tired. From a yoga teacher friend I learned a movement that helps chi energy rise in the body. I demonstrated it to the class, the students tried it and thereafter took turns leading it at the beginning of class with very positive effects.
Newsletter #5 Slow learning
Reacting to the ills of fast foods, the slow food movement is promoting the old fashioned practice of home cooked meals with healthful ingredients. Eating mindfully aids the digestive process and deepens one’s appreciation of a healthful meal. Just as nourishment has been squeezed out of fast food, personal meaning is being squeezed out of education when the goal is to master information and methods that will be tested on year end state evaluations. This education, geared to covering material, promotes finishing units in order to go on to the next ones. The learning engendered might aptly be termed “fast learning.”
What the slow food movement and mindful eating bring to nutrition, the contemplative education movement brings to learning. Contemplative or “slow” learning is old fashioned learning. It’s the learning of medieval church schools and the monastery, characterized by “dwelling with” rather than studying and moving on. In this form of education learners may read a single passage several times, sit with it in silence, respond to it in a journal, and share their responses to it out of the silence in pairs or as a class (see chapter 6 in Parker Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness). Slow learning unites the learner and the learned just as eating meditation unites the diner and her food.
Just as slow foods have ingredients with high nutritional value, slow learning lends itself to particular kinds of textured experiences like reading poetry; conducting investigations; addressing paradoxical, controversial and ambiguous material; and resolving challenging questions and problems. These kinds of experiences naturally generate slow learning. How important it is to nurture habits of slow learning in students in too much of a hurry to get on to what is next. Ultimately, the habit of approaching learning (and then life) in a deeply mindful way is the most important fruit of slow learning.
Newsletter # 6 Slow learning Part 2
Teachers are using mindfulness activities in elementary schools, graduate schools and everywhere in between. Starting classes with practices such as meditation, yoga and journaling can help students focus and approach the activities that follow with more awareness. However, a significant part of student learning takes place at home, where old habits prevail.
For the last few years I’ve had an understanding with my students that I expect them to work up to 45 minutes each night: to study the new material and solve as many problems as they can in that time. As I see it, both a 45-minute homework session and a 45-minute period of meditation should invite the participant to be fully present to the matter at hand. Last year, to try to make this point, I gave my students Thich Nhat Hanh’s story about the practice of washing dishes. Most students understood the story only at the intellectual level at best, however. This year we devoted our short first class to a very concrete activity, raisin-eating meditation. I instructed the students to take 5 minutes to eat three raisins with full awareness of their taste and texture, putting one in the mouth only when no trace of the previous one remained. If they weren’t able to eat all three in the time allotted, that was fine. The next day I explained that I wanted the students to do their homework with the same concentration they had given to eating the raisins. “Chew each homework problem thoroughly. Digest it fully before going on to the next one. In that way you’ll receive the full nourishment that the problem has to offer you. Even if you don’t have time to do every problem, you’ll find that you will come away with a better understanding of the material than if you work hurriedly in order to complete it.”
I find it possible to encourage slow learning in this manner because in mathematics there is no set number of problems that must be completed in insure a student has learned a new concept or mastered a new skill. In an English course it would make little sense to tell students that they could stop after carefully reading three-quarters of the assigned pages or in a foreign language course to stop after thoroughly learning two-thirds of the vocabulary words. Encouraging students to do their homework more mindfully in most subjects is feasible only if teachers are able to assign less reading, fewer vocabulary words, fewer questions to answer. If you try this, I believe that you’ll find that less is indeed more.
Newsletter # 7 Planting seeds
Those of us who share mindfulness with young people so often ask ourselves, “At the end of the day, has it made a difference?” We believe it has, but controlled research studies aside, do we really know?
Every year during the holiday season my school holds an alumni reception. This year I had a memorable conversation with Tom, a former student whom I last saw when he graduated in 1989. Tom shared something of his career path, ending with his current job as a compliance lawyer for the World Bank.
When he asked me what I was up to, I handed him my Minding Your Life business card. “Mindfulness Education,” he read. “That’s like the story you read to us about washing the dishes (Thich Nhat Hanh’s story about being present to washing the dishes from The Miracle of Mindfulness).” I was surprised Tom remembered the story 18 years later. It turned out that he had also read several book on mindfulness in the interim. Tom wondered whether I had any books to recommend now. I suggested that the comprehensiveness of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Coming to Our Senses might appeal to him.
Five weeks later I discovered that the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society would be holding a meditation retreat for law professionals at Spirit Rock retreat Meditation Center this spring and sent Tom an email suggesting he check it out. I also mentioned that I had been moved by his recollection of the dishwashing story. Tom replied immediately, thanking me for the recommendation and concluding: “And if it means something to you, I'd be very surprised if there are any of us who were in that BC Calculus class back in '88-'89 who don't remember the introduction you gave us then to Thich Nhat Hanh.”
So it goes.
Newsletter # 8 Growing mindfulness organically
It seems to me especially wonderful when mindfulness practices arise organically in response to the needs of students. The following is a story about one way in which this happened.
Ten years ago my afternoon 9th grade algebra class was giving me fits. They took forever to settle down. This class regularly got half the work done during class that my morning class accomplished. My first impulse was to blame the class’ problems on a small group of immature students. However, a friend suggested that I survey the class to learn how they viewed things. One observation shared by a number of students was that students were often tired because the class was right after lunch. Reporting back this “finding” to the class, I told them that I’d do some research over our winter break and see if I could come up with a remedy.
Bahnte Rahula, one of the monks at the Buddhist center where I spent part of my winter break, taught yoga. I shared my school challenge with him and asked his advice. Bhante showed me an easy stretching exercise that brought chi energy up from the feet. “Standing on your toes with your hands up over your head, breathe out as you bend down and touch the floor. Then breathe in as you slowly raise your hands back up over your head. Repeat this exercise nine more times, remaining on your toes throughout.
I returned to my challenging class with the hoped for remedy for the problem of tiredness. Gathering the class in a circle in the front of the room, I led the students in the stretching exercise. All were aware of its effect. “In the future,” I said, “we’ll start each class this way. I’ll ask you all to take turns leading it. If you’re wide awake and ready for class, participation will be optional.”
For the rest of the year almost all of us participated in the daily exercise. People passing our door would peer in the window at us with a look of surprise. Our opening practice became something of an identity for the members of the class. Best of all, class members became more focused on their work and more attentive to me and to each other.
Newsletter #9 We teach who we are
Some years ago I taught a seminar on conflict resolution to high school seniors. The class met one evening a week for three hours. Most weeks I invited guests to speak for the first hour. Afterwards the class reflected on how our guest’s teaching related to our broader field of study and discussed the weekly assignment.
One evening I invited my friend, Anh-Huong Nguyen, to talk to the class about developing inner peace. Besides being a Buddhist teacher, Anh Huong also happens to be a niece of Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. After her departure from the class, one student had this to say, “All my life I’ve heard people saying the things she did, but I’ve never before met anyone who lived them.” Indeed, Anh-Huong’s teaching was not so much in her words, as in her spacious, relaxed and mindful presence.
This experience points directly to what is perhaps the most important factor in contemplative education. Because, as Parker Palmer posits, “We teach who we are,” the hurried, unfocused teacher who invites his or her class to slow down and dwell in the present moment by sounding a bell, guiding the class in some form of meditation, or by any other means, lacks credibility. Contemplative education requires teachers who embody what they teach, not necessarily lifelong meditators, but people who have at least begun to engage in some type of regular mindfulness practice.
Newsletter # 10 Non-judgment Part 1
Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as: “moment-to-moment nonjudgmental awareness”. In my recent workshops for teachers and parents I’ve begun to put more emphasis on the nonjudgmental piece of his definition. The workshops commence with a 5-minute “experiment” in which participants are instructed to sit back and relax, close their eyes, and watch whatever appears on their “stage”, that is, passes through their awareness. I ask them to just watch the thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, and input from their non visual senses, but not get involved with what they’re seeing, not go up on stage and try to hold on to something or try to push something off stage, just observe. “However”, I continue, “if you do find yourself reacting to something you’re observing, then your reaction is what’s on your stage. So, watch that.”
At the conclusion of the experiment I collect data, asking for a show of hands of folks who observed sounds, smells, …, their heartbeat, muscle tension,…,emotions (1?, more than 1?) , thoughts (1?, 5?, more than 20?). Then, focusing on thoughts and emotions, I ask how many participants experienced positive ones, negative ones. At this point I share Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness and point out that “positive” and “negative” are judgments that minds apply to particular thoughts and emotions, and that it’s natural for minds to judge.
Teachers are aware when positive and negative judgments are appropriately voiced and/or acted on. Teachers discern whether or not students’ work is correct, whether a class has lost its focus and needs a reminder, whether an unexpected student sharing should be pursued. However, many judgmental thoughts and feelings are not of this discerning sort. Judgments are problematic when they interfere with perception, unconsciously limiting its focus or distorting it by unconsciously adding the teacher’s interpretation to it. These problems occur with positive judgments as well as negative ones. Students judged as “good” or “bad” may not be seen in their entirety. A period of silence following a teacher’s question, during which the class is engaged in thought, may be short circuited by her unconscious feeling of awkwardness. Lost in his enthusiasm about something he is explaining, a teacher may miss perceiving that he has lost the students.
Our minds will continue to judge, but we can become more conscious of our judgments by becoming more aware of the positive and negative thoughts and feelings that appear on our stage. And when we observe positive or negative overlays on how we’re seeing a student, when we become aware of our feeling awkward, or when we realize that we’re lost in our enthusiasm, then, without judging ourselves for this, we can stop and breathe and ask ourselves the simple question, “Am I sure?” Then we can look with fresh eyes at the situation facing us before responding.
Newsletter #11 Non-judgment Part 2
I often end my workshops for parents and teachers with a series of meditations starting from lectio divina, or sacred reading. For the first meditation, participants spend five minutes contemplating a poem or short passage, just hanging out with it, perhaps dwelling on a particular line or image, seeing what arises in them in response to it. After five minutes, I ask the participants to take another five minutes to record continuously whatever is coming up for them in their journals.
Finally, I ask them to pair up with someone they don't know well or, if possible, don't know at all. I give each member of the pair four minutes to share anything that he or she wishes about his or her experience of the reading or writing. I instruct the person listening to just listen, not comment, not ask questions, to say nothing, and not express approval or disapproval in any way nonverbally. The listeners find these instructions difficult to follow. Whether their experiences were similar to or very different from their partner’s, many find it hard to contain their reactions. They're not just listening to their partner but thinking about what they're hearing, comparing it to their experience, often appreciating some aspect of the sharing, occasionally having some kind of negative response. Because they're not just listening to understand, but also having personal responses, their positive and negative judgments are hard to contain. In addition, because they are filtering what they’re hearing through their judgment, they may not be hearing exactly what’s being said.
Some of the people sharing also find it hard to continue to share without getting feedback. They want affirmation, want to feel that the listener not only understands but appreciates what they're sharing. And, if the listener doesn't appreciate it, they'd like to know that as well so that they might clarify what they’re sharing, or, perhaps, head in a different direction.
At the conclusion of this practice, I've been asked what the point is of withholding judgment. As teachers and parents don't we want to let our students and children know when we're pleased or displeased with what they're saying? What is the point of suspending judgment, of just listening? I respond by saying that there are certainly situations that call for judgment. But we do want to hear young people clearly. Furthermore, how are young people ever to discover and own their own feelings if they are constantly being critiqued by adults. Given a steady dose of judgment, it's all too likely that a young person will respond by becoming a pleaser or a rebel, not a person who knows and shares him or herself.
Newsletter #12 Happiness
While many adults and young people have discovered and practice mindfulness, the majority of educators and students have little or no knowledge of or interest in mindfulness. This presents two kinds of challenge. If our offering is optional, how can we “sell” it to those who have no sense of its potential value? And, if our offering is required, e.g. a faculty in-service workshop or something all students in a course must participate in, how can we promote a positive attitude from the start?
Here’s a promising solution. Regardless of their relationship to mindfulness, people want to be happy. What would it be like to share happiness practices with educators and students rather than mindfulness practices? For starters, it would be important to show our participants that happiness and unhappiness have a lot to do with the mind’s response to external conditions and that the participants can learn how to better govern this response. This is the approach I’ve taken in the stress reduction class I’ve given to hundreds of 9thgrade students. (see my paper, “Schooled in the Moment: Introducing Mindfulness to Students and Teachers” on the resource page of the Minding Your Life Web site, www.mindingyourlife.net). This approach might also include meditation practices that lead to deep connections, eating and outdoor walking meditation, or other practices that promote happiness. Participants might also enjoy reflecting on their happiness during the course or workshop.
If you try this approach, I’d be very interested in hearing about your experience. And, if you have thoughts or questions about this or other dimensions of mindfulness in education, I’d also like to hear them. I’ll do my best to respond to you individually or in future newsletters.
Newsletter #13 Being present
My friend Kai Romhardt has written a book titled Slow Down Your Life. While the book is available only in German, a good summary in English can be found at: http://ezinearticles.com/?In-Praise-of-Slowing-Down&id=383533. Kai gives workshops on this theme at German universities. One, required of architecture graduate students, drew particular criticism from many participants. These aspiring architects saw themselves as being required to produce high quality work in an expeditious manner and prided themselves in having the ability to do so. They said that they had no need to slow down. I received a similar reaction from a school administrator at the close of a faculty workshop. She questioned the emphasis I put on walking and eating raisins slowly in two of the meditations I presented. She said that she came from New York and enjoyed speed, enjoyed flying through her work, which entailed a lot of writing. Slowing down simply would not do for her.
This administrator and these students have a point. Slowing down is not the heart of the matter. Rather, it is being mindful of what one is doing, being fully present. My teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, not only does walking meditation, he also does jogging meditation. But he brings the same mindful presence to his jogging that he does to his walking. It’s important to make our goals clear to our students. Perhaps some of them are able to eat or walk rapidly and be as present or more present than when they do so slowly. Why not give them the chance to see for themselves?
Newsletter #14 Vigor
At Thich Nhat Hanh’s recent retreat in Hanoi, my friend Gratia Meyer, whose work can be found at www.meahfoundation.org, described training two Denver, Colorado sixth grade public school teachers to employ mindfulness in several dimensions of their teaching. The positive effects on the students were significant, and the effect on the teachers themselves was also remarkable. On the verge of burnout, both teachers came to life and became excited about their work. Author George Kinder uses the word “vigor” to describe that quality of life where one’s work gives one back as much or more energy as one puts into it. Gratia’s two teachers found vigor, as did I when I brought my mindfulness practice into my classroom. If you are incorporating your mindfulness practice in your teaching, I’m interested in hearing whether it has changed your relationship to your work.
Newsletter #15 Channels
Every year I teach the 9th graders at Sidwell Friends School how to use mindfulness to reduce stress. I begin by inviting them to sit quietly for five minutes and simply watch whatever comes into their awareness. Invariably, most students observe some negative thoughts or emotions arising during that time. I explain to the students that the mind is like a television set. It has many channels, including the happiness, the boredom, the confidence, and the anxiety channels. All people have the same channels, but in each person some channels have stronger reception than others. The strongest ones are default channels, ones that tune in automatically much of the time. If these are negative channels, chronic stress is the eventual result.
Then I show the students how they can change the channel. I lead them in a guided meditation that focuses their awareness on several positive channels like solidity, freshness, and freedom. In the future, when they find their minds stuck on negative channels, they might use this mindfulness tool to prevent stress from building up. In fact, if they develop a meditation practice and tune to positive channels regularly, in time these positive channels can become their default channels.
Newsletter #16 Motivation
Motivation for learning and practicing mindfulness varies tremendously. On one end of the spectrum are the stroke and heart attack victims who come to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness based stress reduction clinic at U Mass Medical Center. They understand that to incorporate meditation and yoga into their daily routine may be a life or death matter. At the other end of the spectrum are the noisy students in Naomi Baer’s inner city public high school math class who decline their teacher’s invitation to quiet themselves and join her in stillness for the first 60 seconds of class, but, in time, enter into this daily period of silence with their classmates.
What motivates students to be still and pay attention? In some cases it’s a challenge or contest. Irene McHenry tells junior high students that, like any muscle, the mind can be strengthened by practice and challenges them to see whether they can focus their minds on their breath for 30 seconds. Sumi Kim asks students to listen for a minute, then list the different sounds they heard. The one who hears the most shares them with the group. Then the students have a chance to repeat the exercise. In other cases it’s the opportunity to explore something familiar in a new way. Mindfully exploring taste and texture during eating meditation and mindfully watching awareness itself (described in Schooled in the Moment available on www.mindingyourlife.net) are two examples. Guided meditations and visualizations that address the needs of the group can also be very motivating. There are a variety of age appropriate guided meditations useful for stress reduction, a need common to many educational settings. Metta or lovingkindness meditation is another wonderful meditation to share in the right circumstances.
If we’re teaching mindfulness to our own students, students we know, or to students or workshop participants attracted by the description of what we’re offering, motivation may not be a major challenge. However, when we’re working in an unfamiliar setting with students or educators who aren’t present by choice, that’s another matter. A 9th grade English teacher once invited me to teach mindfulness to a class that was studying The Catcher in the Rye. I began by introducing myself as a meditation teacher, then asked the class why they thought their teacher had invited me to teach them. They came up with 5 or 6 good reasons, including addressing their difficulty staying focused in class and the book’s theme of alienation. It wasn’t difficult for me to choose a couple of practices to share that met the agenda the students had laid out for me.
Newsletter #17 Getting support
For the past eight Januarys, Irene McHenry and I have offered a 3-day, residential workshop on mindfulness for educators. Participants tell us that their workshop experiences are deeply meaningful and that they learn a lot. However, the conditions present in a retreat setting with others engaged in the same practices and having similar aspirations are very different from those they return to at home. There, life patterns and home and school environments are usually less than ideal for implementing new mindfulness practices. So, the final morning of the workshop we offer an exercise aimed at helping them take home what they’ve learned. Participants identify one goal for their teaching or for their personal life and then do what is known as a “force field analysis.” They begin by making two lists. The first is a list of “driving forces,” conditions already in place that support their accomplishing their goal. The second is a list of “restraining forces,” existing conditions that stand in the way. Next they look over the list of restraining forces and, with the help of another participant, come up with a concrete “action step” to diminish or eliminate the effect of one or more of these forces.
Most of our workshop participants have had previous experience with some form of mindfulness practice. Few have done much to incorporate mindfulness practices in their teaching. Doing so is a goal of many of the participants’ analyses. In the workshop, participants learn a number of practices that Irene, I, and other teachers have used successfully with students. Many participants would like to share one of these practices with their students. However, having only done the practice once, in a very different setting, insecurity can be a restraining force. So, getting support at home is a very good action step. In the past I’ve recommended that teachers join the Mindfulness in Education Network’s listserv (see the MiEN Web site www.mindfuled.edu) to get support from educators all over the world. Wonderful help is available, but only a small percent of the listserv’s almost 450 participants tend to seek it out. This year Irene and I were happy to be able to offer an important new support for the participants and for many other educators, our new book, Tuning In, described above. If you are seeking more support for increasing mindfulness in your educational setting, I’ll be very pleased to see a request for support from you on the MiEN listserv, and, if you do use our book, please share your experience with me.
Newsletter #18 Mindful recollection
Add mindfulness to recollection and a special method of review is produced. Review’s basic purpose is to help students assimilate their learning. In the right situation, mindfulness practice can contribute significantly to this process. Mindful recollection provides learners an opportunity to mine their previous experience for deeper meaning. Here’s an example.
At the recent mindfulness in education conference in Philadelphia I was responsible for conducting the closing plenary session. The day had been a full one for the 330 participants, starting with an inspiring morning plenary followed by lunch time interest groups and twenty afternoon breakout sessions with almost fifty presiders and presenters. Participants arrived at the closing session filled to overflowing with energy and rich experiences. To prepare the group for a review of their day, I began by sharing a quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery. "If you want to build a ship, then don't drum up men to gather wood, give orders and divide the work. Rather, teach them to yearn for the far and endless sea." “The ship being built here is the mindfulness in education movement,” I said, “and I hope that today’ conference deepened our yearning for the success of this movement.” I then invited the participants to close their eyes and let their mind review their day, seeing their arrival, hearing the plenary presentations, letting their day unfold like a film with its chance meetings and conversations and its moments of practice. After you’ve revisited all that happened for you, return to one particular moment, a moment of special inspiration, a moment with particular energy, and just hang out there,” I suggested. Several minutes later I sounded a bell and asked participants to find a partner. Each partner then had five minutes to share whatever wanted to be shared, the other partner listening deeply. The hall was alive with animated speech and profound silence. The day’s rich experience had been mined and honored.
Newsletter #19 Work in progress
Many kinds of activities can become vehicles for teaching mindfulness. I choose activities for particular groups based on the nature of the course and the students for whom they’re intended. The way I see both is always changing. When I offered mindfulness practices regularly to my math students, I was able to observe their reactions and get feedback. This suggested changes such as giving students the option to do yoga when they were too tired to do free writing and the option to review material in their heads to prepare for tests rather than do guided meditations (most who chose to review subsequently returned to the meditations). Another change involved finding new sources for journal writing prompts at the request of students. The Internet became a great resource, providing many wonderful quotes, including ones from Rosa Parks when she passed away, ones on spring for the first day of spring, and these surprising words of Malcolm X:
I’m sorry to say that the subject I most disliked was mathematics. I have thought about it. I think the reason was that mathematics leaves no room for argument. If you made a mistake, that was all there was to it.
This year I taught mindfulness to classes of third year nursing students at the University of Massachusetts. The spring class was very different form the fall class due to a serendipitous meeting with a student. She helped me understand that a greater focus on stress reduction would be more beneficial and connecting than my fall semester’s approach. I eliminated Tonglen, a practice for transforming suffering that had been challenging for the first semester students, as well as a contemplative reading exercise, which hadn’t been particularly compelling. Instead, I incorporated walking meditation and elements of the stress reduction class I gave for many years to all the 9th grade students in my high school (see Schooled in the Moment on the Resources page of www.mindingyourlif.net for details). Several nursing students stayed after the spring semester class to tell me how much they appreciated the relevance of the practices they’d learned to their work in nursing.
Knowledge of a variety of mindfulness practices is most helpful in this ongoing process. Experience using them is that much better. The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society’s Tree of Contemplative Practices, which can be found athttp://www.contemplativemind.org/practices/tree.html, includes many practices that will be familiar and, likely, some new ones. Many of these practices can and need to be creatively adapted for classroom use. Last spring I was inspired by a presentation on the imaginary journey, a class activity loosely related to the vision quest, developed by New York City public school teacher Tom Roepke. Finally, the almost five hundred participants on the Mindfulness in Education Network’s listserv (visit www.mindfuled.org for more information) are a tremendous resource for recommending practices.
Newsletter #20 The mindful educator
In “We Teach Who We Are,” the theme of a previous newsletter, I pointed out the importance of embodying the mindfulness we hope to teach our students. Many of us have a tendency to focus on formal mindfulness practices like sitting meditation or yoga for which we set aside a particular time of the day or week and do in a special place. Even educators with well established mindfulness practices can find it a challenge to maintain mindfulness at work. What might mindful teaching look like? What can one do to support it? Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness: A Guide for Anyone Who Teaches Anything by Deborah Schoeberlein (Wisdom Publications, available in early September) answers these questions. It’s an important new resource for all teachers, regardless of their previous experience with mindfulness practice. In her book, Schoeberlein paints a detailed picture of a day in the life of a mindful teacher. The day begins with waking up to mindful breathing and setting an intention. It ends that night with meditating on one’s satisfaction with the day. In between, there are many informal practices, described by Schoeberlein, which teachers can use throughout the school day, on their own or in their interactions with students. These descriptions aren’t a prescription for mindful teaching. Rather, they provide examples that can inspire teachers to find ways to infuse their days with mindfulness that work for them.
Teaching mindfully is already a great gift to students. It’s where many teachers might stop, not feeling that teaching mindfulness practices to their students is possible in their situation. However, mindful teaching changes classroom environments, creating new opportunities. Further, Schoeberlein’s many examples of ways to teach mindfulness can suggest possibilities for such teaching even with what might seem to be the most challenging student populations and curricula. Schoeberlein gives formal instructions for each student mindfulness activity. However, as with her informal teacher practices and with the approaches described in my book, Tuning In: Mindfulness in Teaching and Learning, these examples best serve to inspire teachers to develop approaches that fit their specific situations.
Newsletter #21 Motivation Part 2
Relevance is key to engaging students and teachers in mindfulness workshops, especially when attendance is required. For this reason, lectio divina, which I wrote about in Newsletter 11, has special potential since the passages presented can be picked with an understanding of the participants. Over the years, I’ve collected poems, quotes, and short teaching stories related to many aspects of life. I usually offer three or four for participants to choose from, hoping that each person feels drawn to at least one.
In preparing a recent workshop for the opening faculty meetings of an independent high school, I located lectio divina practice towards the end. I hoped the sharing in pairs, following contemplative reading and journaling, would deepen faculty connections and help the workshop conclude on a lively note. A new school year was about to commence for all the participants, so used “beginnings” as a common theme for the passages. There is a wonderful story about beginnings in my collection. To it, I added three quotes I found by searching “beginnings; quotations” on Google. The four passages follow. They fully engaged the faculty.
What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.
Nasrudin decided that he could benefit by learning something new. He went to see a master musician. “How much do you charge to teach lute-playing?” “Three silver pieces for the first month; after that, one silver piece a month.” “Excellent!” said Nasrudin. “I shall begin with the second month.”
He who chooses the beginning of the road chooses the place it leads to. It is the means that determines the end.
Harry Emerson Fosdick
All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, not in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Newsletter #22 Mindfulness in Education 101
Mindfulness practices are benefitting students in schools and universities in three distinct but related ways. Increasingly, school counselors, university student services, and groups like Mindful Schools in Oakland, California that visit school schools to teach mindfulness are helping students learn mindful relaxation and emotional regulation techniques that reduce stress and promote resiliency. Mindfulness for stress reduction is the theme of “Schooled in the Moment,” the first essay in Tuning In: Mindfulness in Teaching and Learning, which can be downloaded from Minding Your Life.
Mindfulness practices are also being used by classroom teachers and professors, often at the beginning of classes, to help students become more present, alert, and focused so that they can enter into the learning process more effectively. Examples include focusing on breath or on sounds, journaling, and mindful movement. During my last two years of teaching high school geometry, each class commenced with five minutes of mindfulness practice. Theses classes are the subject of my paper, “Learning to Stop, Stopping to Learn: Exploring the Contemplative Dimension in Education,” which is also available on the MYL Website.
Mindfulness is also being used by educators as a tool for deep learning. At Holy Cross University, Jody Ziegler’s art history students visit the same piece of modern art weekly to observe it and write about what they see. Friends School of Atlanta teacher Denise Aldridge has her 3rd and 4th grade students observe and draw what they see in their school’s garden each season, discovering what has appeared, what has changed, and what has disappeared. In my teacher workshops I often use a mindfulness exercise that includes contemplative reading, writing, and listening practices. These last two examples are described in essays that can be found in Tuning In.
Newsletter #23 Mindfulness in Education 201
At last fall’s mindfulness in education conference in Oakland, California, I gave a presentation on the benefits, described in my last newsletter, of teaching mindfulness practices (stress reduction, preparation for learning, and as a method of learning), Later in the day Shauna Shapiro, another presenter, mentioned a fourth benefit, which she described as “inner knowing.” In schools and universities students are constantly focused on learning concepts and skills, analyzing and critiquing ideas of others, and observing different dimensions of their world. Outside of art courses and creative writing, they are seldom called on to share something of themselves, their inner knowing or wisdom.
For my last two years of math teaching, my main way of promoting inner knowing was through the use of journals. Most Fridays students did free writing for the first five minutes of class. Students wrote in their journals in response to poems, quotes, or short passages several other days each week. I asked the students to write continuously, putting down on paper whatever came to minds, not stopping to think, letting the words come from a place of intuition. This writing was done in the backs of their journals, which I never read. Students wrote for themselves. I tried to select writing prompts which would invite students to look inwards. One such prompt was the following poem from the 13th Century Sufi mystic, Rumi:
Two Kinds of Intelligence
There are two kinds of intelligence: one acquired,
as a child in school memorizes facts and concepts
from books and from what the teacher says,
collecting information from the traditional sciences
as well as from the new sciences.
With such intelligence you rise in the world.
You get ranked ahead or behind others
in regard to your competence in retaining
information. You stroll with this intelligence
in and out of fields of knowledge, getting always more
marks on your preserving tablets.
There is another kind of tablet, one
already completed and preserved inside you.
A spring overflowing its springbox. A freshness
in the center of the chest. This other intelligence
does not turn yellow or stagnate. It's fluid,
and it doesn't move from outside to inside
through the conduits of plumbing-learning.
This second knowing is a fountainhead
from within you, moving out.
The habit of writing for teachers is deeply ingrained in most students, so I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear from one of my students that, in spite of knowing I wouldn’t be reading his writing, it was two months before he began writing journal entries for himself. This was one kind of success. Another kind was conveyed by a student who wrote at the end of the year:
I have learned great things from myself in the way that I respond to quotes in my journal and in how I respond to myself in free writing. In writing continuously, I often write things that I did not understand consciously before they hit the paper.
Newsletter #24 Parents
The Joy of Mindful Parenting
Presence is the key ingredient of mindful parenting, being fully present both to oneself and one’s children. In this workshop participants will engage in contemplative exercises that enhance awareness of one’s thoughts and feelings, sharpen sensory awareness, and promote mindful speech and deep listening. These skills are important building blocks of rewarding relationships with children and adults as well.
After I taught mindfulness for stress reduction to the 9th graders at my Quaker school for several years, I saw the potential for mutual support if school parents also had an opportunity to experience mindfulness practice. So, for several years I offered a stress reduction workshop for parents similar to the one I gave the students. The turnout was disappointing. Were parents too busy to take the time to learn something new that might benefit them? Perhaps they would come if the focus was on how they could better support their children. This was the genesis of the much more successful workshop described above.
Another way of addressing parents: In her new book, The Mindful Child: How to Help Your Kid Manage Stress and Become Happier, Kinder, and More Compassionate (Free Press, 2010), Susan Kaiser Greenland has created a wonderful resource for helping parents who want to teach mindfulness to their kids. In it is she describes the evolution of her work with kids, culminating in the founding of the Inner Kids program for teaching mindfulness in schools. Based on her experiences, Susan articulates principles to help guide parents and includes many examples of mindfulness exercises she has used with young people. However, she is quick to point out to parents that they should base their teaching on their own experience of mindfulness practice.
If you’re working in or have children in a school, you may be able to support the growth of a mindfulness program there by offering parent workshops. Draw on Susan’s book and share it with parent and teacher friends. If you’d like to meet Susan, she’ll be the keynote speaker at the Mindfulness in Education Network’s March 18-20, 2011 conference at American University in Washington, DC.
Newsletter #25 Ensemble learning
Two heads are better than one, especially when the other head brings experiences very different from my own. My new friend, Beth, has a background in theatre. When Beth told me about her work, I could see how it might add a valuable dimension to a new weekend workshop where participants would look at their lives, working contemplatively with stories and poems. The weekend of reading, meditation, journaling, mindful sharing, and deep listening might well lead participants to new insights. However, as I thought about the structure of the workshop, it seemed too sedentary. I asked Beth if she saw ways in which some of the exercises might be embodied. Here are two of Beth’s ideas we used in the workshop.
The first one involved dramatization. After reading a story, Beth divided the participants into two groups. First one group cast the members of the other in roles of the characters of the story, arranged the set, and got the performance underway by reading the introduction. After the members of the first group finished their performance, they cast the second group into roles, and this group performed the story. Finally, all participants wrote about their experiences in their journals.
Beth’s second approach involved gesture. Beforehand, Beth divided a poem into parts, one for each participant. She numbered the parts, cut them into separate strips, and placed them around a small table. To begin the exercise, the poem was read twice by different people. Then each participant selected one part of the poem from the table and had a short time to develop a gesture to illustrate that part. Sitting in a circle, the participants rose in order, read their part of the poem and remained standing, offering their gestures. In the end, the whole poem had come to life, made visible by the group. All that remained was for the participants to individually process their experience.
Mindful learning is often an individual experience. Here, the whole group recreates the material, and its embodied form comes alive and lives in each person in a unique way.
Newsletter #26 Parker Palmer
A “Day of Courage and Renewal,” based on the courage to teach work of educator Parker Palmer, will again follow next year’s annual conference of the Mindfulness in Education Network. I was first exposed to Parker’s work in 1983 through his book, To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey (Harper & Row). Soon thereafter, a sabbatical took me to Pendle Hill Quaker Center, where, for two terms I was fortunate to have Parker as my teacher and mentor. In his book, Parker defined as the goal of teaching “to create a space in which obedience to truth is practiced,” where “truth” refers to the collective truths of the subject matter, the teacher, and the students. In his courses, Parker created just such spaces using the method of lectio divina, described in one of my earlier newsletters.
In 1998 Parker turned his attention from the act of teaching to the person of the teacher with The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (Jossey Bass). Addressing the problems of teacher burnout and lack of engagement, Parker argued for an end to the separation of “soul and role,” for bringing the teacher’s true self into the classroom. Establishing communities of learning in classrooms was an integral part of his vision. This vision led to the creation of a “teacher formation” program, a 2-year program for cohorts of school teachers. This program is now supported by the Center for Courage and Renewal (www.couragerenewal.org) and extends beyond the field of education.
Courage work is based on the creation and use of “circles of trust” where participants engage in a variety of contemplative activities and relate to others in the circle using mindful speech and deep listening. This process is described in detail in Parker’s book, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey toward an Undivided Life (Jossey Bass). My friend, Valerie Brown, who is trained in Courage work and is also a mindfulness practitioner, has invited me to join her in leading Journey toward an Undivided Life: An Introductory Circle of Trust and Mindfulness Retreat at Woolman Hill Quaker Center in western Massachusetts next May.
I highly recommend the three books of Parker’s mentioned above and look forward to being with some of you at the Day of Courage and Renewal at American University in Washington, DC on March 20th and at our retreat in May.
Newsletter #27 Gifts
“Why have you come to this workshop?”, “What do you hope to get out of it?” - questions I often ask participants to respond to at the start of a workshop. Last spring Beth Popelka and I decided to begin our opening session on a different note. When the participants first gathered, we gave each one a copy of Teachers Everywhere from Rachel Naomi Remen’s book My Grandfather’s Blessings (see below) to read silently. We then asked the participants to contemplate the teachers who had passed through their lives, animal and inanimate teachers, as well as humans. Then they wrote for a few minutes in their journals.
We went on to suggest that each participant brings many gifts with her to the workshop. “Take a few minutes to choose one gift you’ve brought that you’d like to share with others. Then create a gesture that embodies this gift,” we requested. We gave as an example a gesture for the gift of humor. To wrap up the session, we stood in a circle for introductions. One by one, each participant said his name and where he was from, then, turning to the next person and assuming the posture of his gesture, he said, “and the gift I am bringing to offer this weekend is….” The introductions and gift offerings proceeded slowly around the circle. When they were over, there was a profound sense of intimacy, and I believe we all felt grateful to be part of the group and looked forward to a weekend of giving and receiving gifts.
Newsletter #28 Listening
Listening is one of the most important mindfulness practices in education. We expect our students to listen to us and to each other, but, in my experience, not many students are able to give their full attention to simply listening. Fortunately, we can provide students with opportunities to improve their ability to listen.
Starting a class by sounding a bell is one of the most common mindfulness practices found in education. Students are quiet, but are they listening? Some elementary school teachers use a variation of this practice. They ask students to raise a hand when they first hear the bell and keep it raised as long as they can hear it.
I’ve used a more complex listening practice with secondary students. I ask students to just listen for two minutes, which begin and end with a bell. Then each student lists all the sounds that she or he heard during that time. Students take turns reading from their lists until all the different sounds that have been heard are mentioned. Students then repeat the exercise. Their second list is invariably longer than their first.
In Newsletter 22, I described Professor Jody Ziegler supporting students’ contemplation by having them observe one particular painting and respond to it in writing each week of her course. Music can also be used as an object of contemplation. My friend, Valerie, and her workshop co-leader, Karl, play a piece of Beethoven (Karl recommends the Beethoven Piano Sonata opus 109, 3rd movement and the Beethoven String Quartet in A major opus 132, slow movement) for their adult students to just listen to and reflect on, then express their responses in writing. Perhaps the ultimate listening practice would be to use, instead of Beethoven, the televised version of John Cage’s 4’33” (four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, performed by full orchestra), available on You Tube at:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hUJagb7hL0E&feature=player_embedded#. If someone tries this, I’d love to hear about it.
Newsletter #29 Waiting meditation
“Will this practice meet teachers or students right where they are?” This is a good question to ask when planning and sharing mindfulness experiences. At a recent retreat for teachers and other professionals, I found myself with most of the participants awaiting the last arrivals to our opening session. It was Friday evening. Many participants had worked that day before driving to the retreat and eating dinner. Some were ready to call it a day. All were ready for the session to begin. It was an ideal time to introduce waiting meditation. I asked those present to consider how often they found themselves in situations where they needed to wait. I continued, “These are wonderful opportunities for us to practice mindfulness, to refresh ourselves for whatever follows, All we need to do is close our eyes and bring our attention to our breath, saying ‘in’ to ourselves with each in-breath and ‘out’ with each out-breath. This practice is simple and can be used throughout the day.” I invited a bell to sound, and we did waiting meditation together for the next several minutes. When I sounded the bell again and opened my eyes, the energy of the participants had changed from restlessness to a more settled and collected energy.
Red light meditation is a particular form of waiting meditation frequently described by Thich Nhat Hanh. In this meditation the driver greets a red light with gratitude for the opportunity to stop, and breathes in and out three times. I suggested that the participants look for opportunities to practice this and other forms of waiting meditation when they returned home. Following the retreat one participant, who was in the midst of a long flight delay, wrote me, “I am breathing in and smiling on the exhale; it may not last the whole time but it feels very good right now”. In their busy lives teachers and students often feel they don’t have time available to dedicate to sitting, walking, or other forms of formal meditation. Informal meditations, which can be done in the midst of daily life, may have far more relevance and benefit for them.
Newsletter # 30 Wellness
Greater wellness is one of the most important fruits of mindfulness practice. It underlies the sharing of mindfulness as a means of reducing stress, which frequently involves promoting relaxation and a caring acceptance of negative thoughts and emotions. However, wellness is also supported when positive emotions are nurtured with mindfulness. In a recent, weeklong course for teachers, I introduced the four immeasurable minds (of love) described in Buddhist teachings. As I wrote:
Loving Kindness – the intention and capacity to offer joy and happiness
Sympathetic Joy – rejoicing in others’ happiness
Compassion – the intention and capacity to relieve and transform others’
Equanimity – responding to others without discrimination
on the board, I gave examples of each, drawn from experiences previously shared by participants. I then gave the participants 10 minutes to reflect on and write in their journals about a recent experience of giving or receiving one of the four expressions of love. Finally, the participants formed pairs, and each person had four minutes to share whatever he or she wished while the other listened. The sharing part of this exercise sustained and deepened the positive experiences evoked by the reflection and promoted sympathetic joy as well.
My intuition tells me that a variation of this exercise might also be successful with a wide range of students. I’m interested to hear from readers of this newsletter who try it.
Newsletter # 31 Motivation Part 3
During my last years of teaching high school math, I began classes with five minutes of contemplative practice. The most common practice was journal writing. I gave the students journals on the first day, and they left them in the classroom during the year.
Sometimes I asked the students to share their experience of some aspect of the course in their journals. They wrote these entries in the front of their journals. I would read them and write “Thank you, RB.” Most Fridays we did free writing. The students and I wrote continuously in our journals for five minutes. Other days we responded to prompts, short stories form wisdom traditions, poems, or one of several quotations that approached a common theme from different angles. Students did free writing and responded to prompts in the backs of their journals with the understanding that I wouldn’t read it.
By the end of the year, students had written quite a bit in the backs of their journals, and, naturally, I was curious about it. So I asked the students to take their journals home for one night, read all the entries in the back, select one that seemed of particular significance and write a one-page paper, telling me about it. I saw from their papers that their writing had borne much fruit, but there was one, in particular, that struck me. A boy reported on an entry he’d written in mid-November. He had read his entries chronologically, and discovered that this was the first entry he’d written for himself. At first I was shocked because he knew I never read these entries. Then I realized that he was so used to writing for his teachers that it had taken him two months to discover what it was to write for himself.
Teachers always hope to have motivated students. However, there are many kinds of motivation. Often students are motivated by success or motivated to please the teacher. If we aim to strengthen students’ practice of mindfulness, how much better that they should see this practice as being for them! Not only did the motivation of my student change in this direction, but he could detect the change himself.
Newsletter # 32 Mindfulness is not an individual matter
Susan Kaiser Greenland, author of The Mindful Child: How to Help Your Kid Manage Stress and Become Happier, Kinder, and More Compassionate, is my inspiration when it comes to teaching interpersonal mindfulness to young people. Several years ago at a Mindfulness in Education Network conference, Susan showed a video of a 3rd grade class sitting in a circle on the floor. Each child, in turn, looked at the child to his or her left and said something like, “Hello, Bill, your eyes look brown.” The feeling of connection that went around the circle was palpable. Susan’s book describes this and many other interpersonal mindfulness practices that can be used with young people.
In my math classes, I employed small group learning for many years. When classes began with five minutes of mindfulness practice before the students started working with their groups, there was a noticeable improvement in the presence students brought to their work. Reflecting on prompts or doing free writing or yoga, students had the opportunity to come back to themselves in the midst of the busy school day, and their groups subsequently accomplished more in less time. After new groups had worked together for a couple of weeks, I would ask the students to reflect and journal on their group experience, notice what was going well and what wasn’t. Then I asked them to reflect on how they might modify their participation to improve their group. When the time came for the groups to change, I suggested students write thank you notes to each of the other members of their group. On the rare occasion I forgot to make time for writing these notes, I was quickly reminded.
Mindfulness practice has an ethical dimension. It’s not only sitting on a cushion. There are many activist and relational mindfulness practices. However, being mindful of others with understanding and compassion is difficult, if not impossible, when one is not mindful of oneself. We offer a great gift to young people when we share interpersonal as well as intrapersonal mindfulness practices with them.
Newsletter # 33 Habits
Tom Bassarear teaches a course at Keene State called Other Ways of Knowing in which he invites students to change a behavior pattern for 21 days, the time it takes to establish a new habit. One of his students decided to eat breakfast every day, seemingly easy, but he had skipped breakfast for years. Another, a shy young woman, decided to meet a new person every day. Her experience was life changing. Like eating a single breakfast, being mindful in a particular moment is not especially challenging. However, overcoming the habit of constantly departing from the present moment is, and it is life changing.
Habits are not easily transformed. During my last two years of teaching, I began every math class with five minutes of contemplative practice. Practicing daily, students became aware of some of their habits. I’ve previously described one such habit related to regular journaling:
The habit of writing for teachers is deeply ingrained in most students, so I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear from one of my students that, in spite of knowing I wouldn’t be reading his writing, it was two months before he began writing journal entries for himself.
Many mindfulness programs offered to students are of short duration. For many years I had the opportunity to teach mindfulness as a means of stress reduction to all the 9th grade students in my school, but this opportunity consisted of a single 45-minute class, hardly enough time to develop a new habit. Occasionally, conditions may be right for a student to investigate next steps, perhaps reading about mindfulness or seeking guidance from established mindfulness practitioners. In other cases the seed that has been planted may sprout later, perhaps through contact with friends who practice mindfulness or in response to physical or emotional suffering.
It would be wonderful if some day all education included other ways of knowing. But this will happen only as we begin to practice other ways of teaching.
Newsletter #34 The pause that refreshes
In my honors geometry class, our most common contemplative activities were free writing and journaling on poems, short teaching stories, and quotes. When I began every class with 5 minutes of contemplative practice, I was aware that I was reducing the time for math by more than 10%. The students were also aware. Yet, in this high achieving environment, I never received an expression of concern from a student or parent. In fact, we covered the usual mathematics curriculum, and student performance was as good as or better than it had been before. A major reason for this was expressed by one student as follows:
Writing down my thoughts and emotions, giving myself time to purely focus on whatever was going on in my mind, allowed me to focus for the next 40 minutes on math more easily.
My friend, Jim Kershner, who teaches writing, takes contemplation a step further. After his students have been doing free writing for 5 minutes, he asks them to stop and simply focus on their breathing for 5 minutes. Then they do another 5 minutes of free writing. The students are amazed at the difference they see in their post meditation writing.
It was my practice to use a bell in class, and I would often invite it in the midst of student work, much of which was done in small groups. At the sound of the bell, students stopped what they were doing and took three mindful breaths, some with their eyes closed. Even these short pauses were sources of refreshment for many students, though, I’m sure, some continued thinking about the work they were doing. As the students were pausing, I was as well. These mindful pauses helped me to come back to myself. They might be an effective way to introduce mindfulness to students, especially if 5 minutes seems unworkable, and might
eventually lead to practices of greater duration.
Newsletter #35 Buy in
In Teacher Man, Frank McCourt describes trying to find a way to connect with his unmotivated New York City high school English class. “What is it they’re interested in?” he asks himself. The answers are immediate, sex and food. Electing the latter, McCourt introduces what turns out to be a hugely successful unit that involves the students in collecting and sharing family recipes, cooking food for the class, and making presentations with musical accompaniment provided by classmates.
The young people to whom we introduce mindfulness practice may not be as challenging as McCourt’s English class, but getting student buy in may still be difficult. This is particularly true for older students, for students who are not receiving our instruction by their own choice, and for students who don’t already have an established relationship with us as teachers. Even in the best of circumstances, we need to realize that asking students to fully attend to something with nonjudgmental awareness and an attitude of curiosity is asking them to care. Extending their care to something, even if doing so is experienced privately, can require a good deal of vulnerability of some young people. Therefore, in designing mindfulness experiences, carefully choosing the objects we ask students to attend to is very important. We might well consider the variation of Frank McCourt’s question “What is it they care about?”
For Mary Scattergood, a second grade teacher at Friends School Haverford, the answer to the above question was “Beanie Babies.” Scattergood describes the Beanie Baby Meditation she created for her class in Tuning In: Mindfulness in Teaching and Learning, McHenry and Brady, eds. In my case, I was given the opportunity to teach mindfulness as a means of stress reduction to the 9th graders in my school as part of a heath unit. At this age, students are in the midst of figuring out who they are. They’re interested in themselves. They’re very aware of their bodies, but few have paid attention to their minds. Watching their minds do what they do when undirected is the basis of my “Mind as a Stage” exercise. I describe this in my article “Schooled in the Moment: Introducing Mindfulness to Students and Teachers,” which can be found on the Minding Your Life website, www.mindingyourlife.net.
If you’re not having difficulty getting student buy in when you try to share mindfulness with them, congratulations. If you are having difficulty, you might ask yourself what they care about. And if you have trouble coming up with mindfulness practices that meet the students where they are, I suggest you ask for advice on the Mindfulness in Education Network’s listserv, available through www.mindfuled.org.
Newsletter #36 The medium Is the message
In my experience, the deep learning that students took away from my classes had less to do with the content than with how I taught it. As I began to understand that the medium was the message, I learned to pay a great deal of attention to pedagogy. Steering clear of learning mathematics by rote, I focused on discovery learning and problem solving. Later I introduced cooperative learning. Without realizing it, I was developing a pedagogy that supported mindfulness, which became a major factor in my last years of teaching. I’ve described many of my experiences and thoughts related to the pedagogy of mindfulness in Learning to Stop, Stopping to Learn: Discovering the Contemplative Dimension in Education, which is available on the Resources page of the Minding Your Life website,www.mindingyourlife.net.
How stimulating it was to attend a presentation on “Exploring Pedagogical Underpinnings of Contemplative Classroom Communities” at the recent Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education Conference! Given by Tom Bassarear and Katie Byrnes, assisted by Jess Caron, one of Byrnes’ Bowdoin College students, the presentation addressed pedagogical dimensions including: building community; designing first-person inquiry; differentiating learning activities; and assessing holistically. These dimensions are as significant for school teachers as they are for professors. Hopefully, Byrnes and Bassarear will soon produce a paper based on their presentation.
In the meantime, those of us interested in exploring mindful pedagogy will find A Buddhist in the Classroom (SUNY Press, 2008) by Sid Brown a wonderful resource.
This is a book filled with accounts of teachable moments, often moments that relate to Brown’s growth as a teacher. A professor of religion, Brown uses her extensive knowledge of and experience with Buddhism to help frame and organize her teaching experiences. Her experiences illuminate the same dimensions Byrnes and Bassarear described. Brown’s inclusion of her own thoughts and emotions invite us to journey with her. Here again, there is little need to distinguish between teaching in schools and higher education.
In the end, wise educators employ pedagogies that fit their own teaching situations and reflect who they are, who their students are, what they teach, and their teaching environments. Still, we have much to benefit from the lessons learned by our contemporaries and those who have gone before us.
Newsletter #37 To create a space
In his book To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey, Parker Palmer describes education in this way: To teach is to create a space in which obedience to truth is practiced. The truth he refers to is the truth of the subject, the teacher, and the students, and the nature of obedience is not compliance, but fidelity. In his own teaching Palmer makes extensive use of contemplation to create such a space.
One day in my tenth grade honors geometry course I told the students they’d receive a quote from Malcolm X to journal on the following day. This is the quote:
I'm sorry to say that the subject I most disliked was mathematics. I have thought about it.
I think the reason was that mathematics leaves no room for argument.
If you made a mistake, that was all there was to it.
Their responses to the quote were written in the backs of their journals, so, by agreement, I never read them. I wish I’d been able to, because this quote suggests why employing contemplation in creating such a space was challenging for me. The students had grown up with the knowledge that mathematics problems have right answers, and their job was to solve the problems in order to find these answers. From the moment they encountered a problem, they were analyzing it, comparing it to problems already solved, seeing what known theorems might be applicable and so on. Sitting back and simply contemplating a figure or a question, waiting patiently for insight, happened only if they had no idea how to proceed but were not ready to give up and move on to the next problem.
Given the reality, that in this context, truth had little to do with the students or me; it was inherent in the problem, I made the decision to reserve the first five minutes of class for contemplative practices that didn’t focus on mathematics, most often using journaling in response to quotes or poems, free writing, yoga, and guided meditations before quizzes and tests. Beginning class this way helped students be fully present to the mathematical activities that followed. Occasionally, I was able to come up with a mathematical question which seemed appropriate for contemplation, for example:
We have developed a formula for determining the area of a triangle given the
length of its sides. Do you think there might be such a formula for determining
the area of a quadrilateral?
This question led to a good deal of contemplation followed by vigorous small group discussions which produced no resolution in most groups. Leaving the question hanging, I invited further contemplation at home. The space this question created was close to that described by Palmer. We got even closer to that space the few times I presented the students with geometric figures or other mathematical situations and asked them to formulate their own questions about them. Curiosity and imagination helped some students come up with original questions. The majority of the students, well practiced in answering questions, found asking them daunting. However, I believe the approach of asking students to formulate questions has the potential to be one of the most productive ways to encourage contemplative learning in mathematics courses and others as well.
Newsletter #38 Skillful Means
As mindfulness becomes mainstream, it is being offered in settings including business and the military as well as classrooms, medical centers and retreat centers. With its growth in popularity, there is a corresponding growth in the number of approaches to teaching mindfulness and the number of people teaching it. Almost all the teachers I’ve met have roots in some contemplative spiritual tradition. However, as scientific studies show the positive impact of mindfulness training on a number of mental and physical conditions, the spiritual and ethical dimensions of mindfulness practice are no longer a primary interest for an increasing number of its new students. These dimensions, foundations of traditional mindfulness teaching, are minimal or absent in some recently developed mindfulness curricula, including several used in public schools.
If you believe, as I do, that mindfulness practice promotes wellness at all levels, then teaching that explicitly addresses ethics, deep insight, and compassion is not absolutely required, particularly if these qualities are embodied in the teacher. What is essential is using skillful means to make mindfulness practice appealing and accessible to the intended audience. The .b curriculum, developed for high school students by English schoolteachers, does this through the creative use of PowerPoint images and videos. The MindUPcurriculum for elementary school students does this by including lessons on brain science. Mark Williams’ teaching approach with adults, based on his work with Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy and laid out in his book, Mindfulness: An Eight Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World, draws on the nature of the mind in making a case for students to commit to a half-hour daily practice.
In summary, my advice to mindfulness teachers:
At the Mindfulness in Education Network’s recent conference, plenary speaker Sam Himelstein, a psychologist who teaches mindfulness to incarcerated youth, described the skillful means he employs in working with his clients. His talk, posted on MiEN’s Website, illustrates some of the best mindfulness teaching I’ve encountered.
Newsletter #39 Just Listening
In Newsletter #11 I described a practice in which I asked the listeners to just listen without comment, without questions, and without expressing approval or disapproval nonverbally. That newsletter was about non-judgment, but just listening is much more than refraining from communicating positive or negative judgments. It is refraining from thinking about what one hears as one listens. There is nothing wrong with thinking about what one is hearing, or seeing, or feeling. Being mindful, however, of our experiences means that we are aware of the difference between our direct experiences and the thoughts that these experiences occasion. We can then see that what we experience may be more about us than about the original stimulus. One way to help students develop this awareness is to ask them to experience things like watching the breath or noticing the sensations in one's feet without thinking about them. And these are easy compared to just listening to someone.
On two occasions during a recent residential mindfulness course for Italian teachers, I asked participants to just listen to their partners for five minutes. On the second occasion the listeners appeared remarkably attentive, yet inexpressive. When I gave participants the opportunity to share their experiences with the whole group, I was disappointed when no hands went up. Then Loredana, who teaches in a school for teenagers in Palermo, shared that she had found just listening to be extremely challenging, but she'd done her best to practice it as she listened. Then, for a brief moment, something completely unexpected had happened. As she listened, she vanished. There was no longer a separation between her partner and her. It was as if she were hearing her partner's words from inside her partner. Loredana later told me that she has had similar experiences before, but only in listening to her son. This time, knowing that no response was expected of her, freed her from the fear of being caught unprepared to respond and enabled her to stop thinking and just listen. Knowing now that it is possible for her to listen in this manner to a relative stranger, Loredana sees many opportunities to just listen in the future. Loredana's experience inspired me and some of the rest of the participants to continue to practice just listening when we returned home.
Newsletter #40 Just Listening Part 2
At our mindfulness in education conference earlier this year, Lisa Flook, a research scientist at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, shared a mindfulness practice, which is a favorite with preschoolers. Asking us to raise both hands, she sounded a chime. We were instructed to keep our hands raised until we could no longer hear the chime, then lower them to our abdomens and breathe in and out three times. I’ve modified the second part of this practice for older students and ask them to continue to listen to whatever sounds are present after lowering their hands.
Most students are able to keep their awareness focused on the sound of the chime. However, staying focused on whatever sounds are present is more challenging. The awareness needed is more open and so more permeable. Because there’s no single thing to focus on, extraneous thoughts have more room to come and go. Another difference is the lack of the goal like hearing the chime as long as possible. In an earlier newsletter, I described a listening practice with the goal of listening for as many different sounds as one is able to hear. This requires students to mentally take note of sounds as they hear them. Identifying sounds involves cognition and is not just listening. Even without this goal, the process of labeling sounds occurs quite naturally.
In most listening experiences, people need to think about what they’re hearing. Add to that the random thoughts that continually intrude while one is attempting to just listen, and it’s no wonder that just listening is so rare. Perhaps preschoolers appreciate this more than we adults do.
Many years ago I accompanied a friend to a prison to offer a mindfulness presentation to a group of inmates. At the conclusion I asked for questions. There was one: “Would you please sound the bell one more time?”
Newsletter #41 Regional Groups
Connecting with other mindful educators can strengthen one’s commitment, help generate new approaches to incorporating mindfulness and support one’s personal mindfulness practice. However, although mindfulness is getting more attention from the press these days, its inclusion in educational settings is still quite young. Educators employing mindfulness in their teaching or for personal support are fortunate if they can find a colleague similarly engaged.
At the Mindfulness in Education Network’s recent conference, more than 200 participants from all levels of education and all parts of the US came to American University to learn, share, and practice together. Back home, many will stay connected by participating on MiEN’s listserv, which now has over 1,200 members. I’m fortunate to be part of a regional mindful educators’ group. Last year my friend and fellow mindfulness practitioner, Willow Nilsen, director of a local Waldorf pre-school, shared her intention with me to from this group. We approached Tom Bassarear, another friend and education professor at Keene State College, who is also a founder of Keene’s Monadnock Mindfulness Practice Center. With the approval of the Center’s Board, we began to meet there from 9:00 to 11:30 am the first Saturday of each month, starting last January.
Last month eight educators from Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, early childhood educators to college professors, enjoyed sitting and walking meditation, sharing their uses of mindfulness, journaling on a short reading, then sharing in pairs, and learning a new mindfulness practice – focusing fully on the end of each activity before moving on to the next. Afterwards seven of us enjoyed a delicious lunch at a local Thai restaurant.
I’m aware of other regional mindful educator groups in Maine and the Midwest. Regional groups employ a variety of methods for outreach including: using the MiEN listserv, creating a group Facebook page, sharing flyers with meditation groups, area schools and colleges, especially schools of education and counseling, and putting them out at regional education conferences. The Midwest group is in the early stages of planning a regional conference. Are the conditions ripe for a regional group to form in your area with some help from you?
Newsletter #42 Live Encounters
Parker Palmer is fond of saying, “We teach who we are.” If we’re mindfulness practitioners, we are people on the path of embodying mindfulness in our lives. Our teaching of mindfulness reflects this, regardless of the particular curriculum we adopt or create. Our students get this in the way we talk, the way we listen, the way we’re present, the way we attend to them and to ourselves. The actual mindfulness curriculum we’re able to share in our particular setting may be limited. We may be constrained to not explicitly teach any mindfulness practices whatsoever. Even so, students will get who we are. They will see that mindfulness is more than reduced stress, emotional regulation, higher test scores. They will see that it is a way of living. They will see that mindfulness is not an individual matter. That it is the solid foundation on which relationships are built.
In To Know as We Are Known, Palmer’s first book on education, he suggests that “to teach is to create a space in which obedience to truth is practiced.” “Truth” here refers to the mutuality that exists between content, teacher, and students. Teaching is a live encounter of all three. That encounter will be different for different teachers teaching mindfulness to the same students, for a teacher teaching mindfulness to different groups of students, and for a teacher teaching different mindfulness lessons to the same students. Generalizations about what should and should not be taught and how it should or should not be taught may be a helpful starting point, but must, in any case, be tempered by the reality of the specific context of the teaching. It might be a helpful reminder to add, “Students learn who they are,” to the opening quote. In K-12 education, student learning may also be significantly influenced by who their parents are. Teaching mindfulness from one’s own experience, with an understanding of the truth the students bring with them into the classroom, facilitates the choice of content, pedagogy, and language that builds connection and willingness to engage in new kinds of learning.
Newsletter #43 Presence
Mindfulness underlies the most important gift educators can give their students, their presence. Many years ago I was inspired by Rachael Kessler’s beautiful essay, The Teaching Presence, which appeared in the November 2000 issue of the Virginia Journal of Education. In it Kessler shared her observations on what a teacher’s presence and lack of presence contribute to the educational process. In my own experience, being fully present to myself and my students invites my students to be present as well. Beginning class with a contemplative practice such as silence or journaling helps both me and the students let go of what we’ve brought with us and arrive in the present moment. Recently I heard a professor describe a very different way of starting classes. Having been deeply affected by Thich Nhat Hanh’s slow, graceful manner of erasing white boards during his talks, the professor begins his classes in a similar fashion. The message, “We are here to pay attention to everything.” is clear. His students get it.
Our habit of thinking ahead to what we will do next is one of the greatest barriers to being present in this moment. Professor Tom Bassarear uses a simple, but challenging, practice to help break this habit. Finish what you’re doing. Focusing on finishing this, precludes being distracted by that. When we have finished, we can pause to appreciate what we’ve done and prepare for what follows. What makes this practice especially challenging is that we are seldom aware of what we are thinking about. Our habits of thinking are so ingrained that we’re on autopilot. This is also true for our students. A practice of being present to oneself can help loosen these habits. This practice involves stopping class once or several times and inviting our students to join us in shutting our eyes, simply noticing our thoughts and feelings, then opening our eyes and returning to what we were doing.
Newsletter #44 A Mindfulness Initiative
The principal of our village’s PreK-8 public school announced a school wide mindfulness initiative last fall. His approach is to expose the faculty to mindfulness and let it take root in an organic way. The school now has a group of teachers who meet regularly to discuss mindfulness, and the principal recently purchased copies of Daniel Rechtschaffen’s book The Way of Mindful Education for every faculty member. Earlier this week I presented a mindfulness workshop to the faculty as the next step in the principal’s initiative.
Planning for the workshop, I talked with the principal and the faculty mindfulness group a few weeks beforehand. It quickly became clear that a workshop focusing on the benefits of mindfulness for the teachers themselves would have the best chance of interesting faculty members who saw mindfulness as just another educational fad. I would emphasize stress reduction, as I was pretty sure that, even in a quiet village, school teachers experienced stress. This was confirmed by an almost unanimous show of hands at the start of the workshop. I began the workshop with the four minute “experiment” of observing all that passes through awareness, then related negative mental states to stress. This segued into a guided meditation visualizing positive qualities. I often use these exercises in workshops with students and wrote about them in Schooled in the Moment, which is available on my website.
The workshop ended with a raisin eating meditation, just the right conclusion to an after school faculty meeting. Paying attention is often talked about in schools. Here was a way to promote the teacher’s attention as well as the students’. I’ll return in spring to talk with faculty members interested in following up on their workshop experience.
Newsletter #45 Teaching Mindfulness
Our knowledge of mindfulness practices appropriate for the students we teach, our knowledge of mindful pedagogies, our communication skills, our understandings of our subject and of our students provide the foundation for our teaching of mindfulness. However, it’s our own mindfulness that enables us to “create a space” in which, as Parker Palmer writes, “obedience to truth is practiced.” Here “obedience” is in the sense of fidelity and “truth” refers to the truths of the teacher, the students, and what is being taught.
In my opinion, the most important support we need as teachers of mindfulness is that which helps us develop and deepen our own mindfulness practice. Practice has a profound impact on our truth as teachers. Through mindful breathing, we can become more aware of the present moment. Through the practices of loving speech and deep listening, we can develop more effective communication with our students. Through the practice of looking deeply, we can better know ourselves, our students, and our subjects, enabling us to more effectively utilize familiar mindful pedagogies and practices and create new ones.
With the support of our practice, we can teach in a mindful way, a way that is much appreciated by our students. Additionally, employing pedagogies that promote mindful learning enables us to more effectively create spaces obedient to the truths of particular subjects and particular students. Familiarizing ourselves with some of these pedagogies is a second support for us as teachers of mindfulness. These pedagogies are as simple as mindfully erasing white boards and as complex as helping classes to mindfully make decisions by consensus. Some are spatial, such as arranging desks in circles or groups of four. Others are temporal, such as periodically providing time for reflection or free writing. With our mindfulness we can successfully employ mindful pedagogies in teaching many subjects to many different kinds of students.
Drawing on their own practice, educators are increasingly developing ways to invite their students to mindfully engage with course content. Three times during the fall Denise Aldridge’s third and fourth grade students sit for 40 minutes in their school’s garden and observe and draw what they see. They discover how to look at one thing and observe both details and change1. English teacher Hope Blosser’s 12 and 13-year-old students read Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street and learn to engage in contemplation and self-reflection in the process of writing their own micro-fiction1. Professor of Information Science David Levy asks the students in his Information and Contemplation course to record their thoughts and experiences in journals when they use a particular form of information technology2. Students in Economics Professor Daniel Barbezat’s Consumption and the Pursuit of Happiness course discover the effect of doing a well-wishing meditation on their generosity2.
Students can learn to engage mindfully without learning mindfulness practices. However, becoming familiar with practices like pebble meditation3 and raisin meditation4, which come from a variety of sources, contributes a third support for teachers of mindfulness. In some secular settings, the teaching of mindfulness practices may not be sanctioned. However, a mindful teacher using mindful pedagogies already gives students significant experience with mindfulness. When we are able to add mindfulness practices to our teaching, we give our students the important benefit of having concrete ways to take mindfulness home with them.
1 Tuning In: Mindfulness in Teaching and Learning, McHenry and Brady eds, 2009, Friends Council on
2 Contemplative Practices in Higher Education, Barbezat and Bush, 2014, Jossey-Bass
3 Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children, Nhat Hanh, 2011, Parallax Press
4 Full Catastrophe Living, Kabat-Zinn, 1990, Dell Publishing