Mindful Learning Practices for the Classroom
The practices below were developed by Montclair State faculty as part of the Contemplative Pedagogy and Practices Faculty Fellows Program, originally funded by a Contemplative Mind-1440 Teaching and Learning Center grant bestowed by the Contemplative Mind in Society, supported by the 1440 Foundation.
The exercises below are open and free for any educator to adapt for their own classroom use or pedagogical experimentation with mindful learning practice. If you have a practice you use in the classroom that is grounded in contemplative and/or mindfulness learning theory, please feel welcome to share that experience with us by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please clearly indicate if you give permission for your teaching practice to be published on our website, with the understanding that it is in the spirit of community and of sharing practices that continually explore how we engage students in learning and be attentive to the benefits of teaching to the whole student: mind, body and spirit.
Course: Mindful Practice in Health and Nutrition Sciences, from Dr. Meena Mahadevan
“One of the techniques we’ve been using throughout the semester is to have students keep track of everything they consume – journaling or maintaining a food diary. The idea is that through journaling, they highlight the reasons they eat and which parts of the day they are most hungry. They are encouraged to track not just what they eat and how much they eat but also to track their level of hunger at various times of the day. They are encouraged to keep track of all the distractions before, during and after eating. The idea here is that when you pay attention to your hunger, learn to reduce the distractions, you tend not to starve, and consequently, you make healthier food choices.
The second technique we use is visual imagery – visualize the increase in ghrelin before eating and the increase in leptin levels during eating. The idea here is that visualizing will help to focus their attention on when they feel hungry, and when they feel full. We’ve done an exercise in class where we all bring a small snack to class, and eat quietly, visualizing the ghrelin and leptin levels, and talk about when we started to feel full, to look at how much we had eaten. We even did a comparison where we ate without visualizing and then ate with visualizing and noted the difference in how much we actually ended up eating.
The third technique is what we call progressive muscle relaxation – I got this idea from an intervention we are implementing for HIV-positive women in the community. We tense and relax the various muscles of our body, as if we are under stress, and pay attention to how that impacts our blood flow. When blood flow to the GI tract and muscle is affected during tension, then we digest and utilize our nutrients less efficiently.
The fourth technique is what is commonly known as positive affirmations. This is all about teaching students that when it comes to food, nobody is supposed to be perfect. The point of mindfulness is the commitment to return to the bite, the moment, the direct experience of eating. The point of mindful eating is to not judge or get lost. Instead, the point is to simply observe, experience the process of eating, and create awareness that both negative and positive experiences happen during eating. So we learn to create an opportunity to connect to the act of self-kindness – without shame or blame – to affirm that we can succeed in creating more positive experiences around eating healthily.”
On the influence and purpose of mindful learning practices in teaching nutrition sciences:
“I’ve introduced some techniques in my course that are based on the principles of mindfulness – which is to become more aware of your body, pay close attention to the signals that trigger hunger and satiety, and the impact that stress can have on these signals, and in turn, on one’s eating habits.
As future registered dietitians, my students are aspiring to be dynamic and effective agents of change who empower individuals to develop a positive and sustainable approach to healthy eating. So, I knew that my students really needed some tools to effectively help themselves and their future clients normalize their relationship with stress and food. I emphasize that there are three major goals of this process of mindfulness: 1) to fully experience the eating experience, 2) to direct an individual’s attention to the act of eating and in the process, learn how to recognize the hunger and fullness cues, and 3) to witness without judgment or shame, the emotional and physical responses that result before, during, and after the eating experience.”
Course: Advanced Curriculum and Methods for Early Learners with and without Disabilities, Dr. Elizabeth Erwin
“Participating in CPP provided many benefits for me as well as my students including deepening our critical thinking, inquiry and reflection skills. There are also new tools that I have already incorporated into my teaching including:
- Silence as a teaching tool (please see Ann Evan’s practice below);
- Meditation before, during or after class;
- Balance of movement (switch seats) with quiet (guided meditation) to engage students more fully and to encourage them to examine their own beliefs.
- At random (unplanned) moments during class – not every class, as it should be spontaneous and determined by the attentiveness you perceive to be lacking on the part of your students – announce to students that they must pick up all their belongings and move to a new seat. You may also ask them to sit somewhere or by someone they haven’t before. This practice re-orients them to the present moment and place, shifts the dynamic of the class so that students must re-engage, and forces them to break their habitual routines that often lead to monotony, especially during long lectures.
- Writing in class as a form of deep reflection;
- Inquiry Journal Writing – to connect students’ inner lives to what and how they are learning in the course.
Course: College Writing II: Writing and Literary Study, Professor Ann Evans
“My students loved our Thursday meditations (with one exception, who was not on board with my teaching style. Others tell me you are not teaching well if there isn’t at least one student who disagrees with most of what you do!) These meditations brought cohesion, comity and tranquility to the class. This is important in a class like mine, where creative thinking is required as they compose essays reflecting their own opinions.
- I would like to use music more in class. My students commented enthusiastically about the times when they either sang or I sang to them. Music uses the brain in its own way.
- I would like to stretch out class exercises more often with periods of silent thought. The rhythm of the class might become more soothing and non-threatening.
- I am looking for stories, poems, etc. to read which will invite reflection. The Book of Tea, for example, is the perfect essay, and includes in its discussion the reflective practices inherent in the tea ceremony. It views the world through tea, and manages to discuss religion, government, health, aesthetics, social organization, mental and physical health, botany, the culinary arts, history, fashion, and I can’t even remember what else. It never loses its focus as it comments intelligently on the whole world.
Ann writes a very active and inspirational blog called “Linguistics in the Classroom.” In her blog, she often fully details the contemplative practices she uses in her own courses, with commentary on the response by students and her thoughts on the effectiveness of each practice. It is well worth reading simply for the myriad ideas one could adapt for their own use in courses, as well as for Ann’s direct and succinct writing style; she publishes brief, easily digestible posts that pack in a lot of information without being too long to read. To view all her entries, please visit her blog at the link above.
Here are a selection of practices Ann has used in her courses:
Since contemplative practices are, among other things, aimed at disrupting the sense of time, I chose a time exercise as the beginning of our class contemplative practice.
“Raise your hand when you think a minute is up.”
The students looked around shiftily, watching how others were reacting.
No hands went up. Good.
Still no hands up. Good.
Then I looked at my watch (I was, after all, the timekeeper), and followed the second hand to one minute, then looked up, and hands shot up.
I asked what method they had used to determine when we had reached a minute, and it turned out that all the students were watching for my reaction, not concentrating on time. They could tell by my body language and facial reaction that I was following the second hand.
We had a laugh over that.
So that exercise was a failure.
Later in the semester, I’ll try again and will be more sly. I will turn off the lights and ask them to close their eyes. I will place my cell phone on the desk and will spend the whole minute looking at it, rather than checking the class from time to time.
Letting Thoughts Walk on Through:
This meditation took place between the clarification in class of the goal for the next essay, and each student’s attempt to narrow his or her focus.
The lights went out, the door was closed, the students set themselves up by adjusting their posture and taking a few breaths. I asked them to turn their attention to their next essay, then breathed on it for a minute or two.
“Ideas are running through your head, right? That is the monkey brain, always teasing you, taunting you, distracting you with thoughts unrelated to your focus.” Pause for a minute. ”Don’t fight these ideas. Let them enter your head and march out the other side. Instead of grasping them, let them move. Watch them.”
We breathed on that for a few minutes.
“Many of you are having negative thoughts about this essay — ‘I don’t know what to do,’ ‘I’ve always been terrible at writing,’ ‘I got a C in my high school writing class,’ ‘my teacher told me that writing was not my strong suit,’ ‘This is hard.’ Watch those thoughts march through your head and out the other side, too. They play no role in this task.”
We breathed on that for a few minutes.
“Now you are ready to think.”
We took at least five minutes to reflect silently, then turned on the lights, opened the door, and began to discuss the focus of the upcoming essay.
One of the pitfalls of learning is the frequent assumption by students that their view of the world is universally held. In my classes, recent statements have ranged from “Everyone serves lasagna on Christmas,” to “Everyone loves their parents,” to “There were no abortions before Roe v. Wade.”
Exercise: Ask students to close their eyes. Ask them to breathe comfortably in and out, and then instruct them to relax their feet, ankles, knees, hips, stomach, throat, eyes, etc. Then guide them in a meditation. This has as many permutations as there are people, but I often use this one:
Imagine you are walking along and you come upon a gate in a fence.
You walk through the gate, and across a wide field.
You come to a body of water, where you stay for a while.
Now turn around and come back to where you started.
You can also use this one:
Imagine you stop your car by the side of the road and walk to a lake 100 yards away
What is on the surface of the lake?
Descend lower into the water. What do you see there?
Descend to the bottom of the lake. What do you see there?
Now rise back to the top and walk to your car.
This part of the exercise should take 5-10 minutes. It takes time for images and impressions to develop, so leave plenty of time between each phase of the imagined experience.
After it is over, ask the students to tell the rest of the class what their fence/field/body of water looked like, what they did while they were walking.
Some students are alone, some with others. For some the field is full of flowers, which they pick, others play soccer with their team. Some go swimming in the water; others dip their toe in, and some just look at it. On their return, some lock the gate behind them; others walk through and leave it open. Some have friends awaiting them on the other side of the gate; others are alone. The imagined experiences are utterly different from one another, and students are amused, amazed and delighted at the variety.
(As an aside, Thanksgiving provides an opportunity to demonstrate similar diversity on a more practical level. In the first class after the break, I ask each student to write down what they ate on Thanksgiving. I have done this three years in a row and there is no single food that “everyone” has served, not even turkey and pumpkin pie. One such real-life example of natural diversity is worth any number of lectures on the subject.)
This is a counter-linguistic exercise in that it involves no language at all until the class reviews what they have imagined – the experience takes place on another level. It is a good opportunity to question where ideas come from, how creativity works, and what our “minds” are.
The dazzling array of different experiences speaks for itself in demonstrating that no two minds think alike. The point can be underlined by noting that their imaginings proceeded from different experiences and expectations, and that this diversity should be assumed in every area of the human experience.
Reading Asian Culture, Dr. Aditya Adarkar
This semester allowed me to catalog and refine the following teaching moments that illustrate and expand mindfulness. These activities are based on the principle of “living Zen” — the idea that meditation is not the only path to mindfulness, and that we can practice mindfulness through (carefully structured) activities that promote mindful contemplation. (This has precedence in various Zen practice: the parables of helping strangers, the Tassajara bakers, the practice of contemplative eating.) These activities are open-ended and produce different results and reactions each time; they require an investment in time, especially time for response and discussion.
The activities revolve around the following maxim: as we do, we reflect, we become aware
A. Keeping lists for 24 hours as practicing awareness and setting the stage for self-inquiry:
A list of lies: Students record lies that they hear, see, experience. They might even record lies they find themselves telling others or themselves.
The discussion of ethics and our awareness of ethics leads to a discussion of what it means to be mindful of ethics. This sets the stage for a discussion of Confucius’ Analects and the idea that politics is an extension of ethics.
A list of suffering: Students record forms of suffering that they hear, see, experience. They might even record suffering they find themselves inflicting on others or suffering that is inflicted on them.
The discussion of suffering and of our awareness of suffering leads to the Buddha’s First Noble Truth. (“Suffering is.”) This sets the stage for an investigation of the other key ideas of Buddhist philosophy.
A list of corruption: Students record forms of corruption that they hear, see, experience, with particular attention paid to acts or institutions corrupting the youth.
Discussing corruption and why it harms us leads us to the opening of Socrates’ Apology. We discuss the forms of corruption in our lives and become aware of the gaps between promises and realities. The goal of these discussions is to understand and critically assess the claim, “the unexamined life is not worth living (… is no kind of human life).”
The discussions this semester helped me to consider using complementary lists: lists of truth-telling, satisfaction, and improvement. Lists could also include both an attribute and its complement, for example, examples of lies and truth-telling.
B. Mindful activities can also be structured around insights from traditions of mindfulness. For example, Kawabata quotes Ikenobo Sen’o as saying, “The ancients arranged flowers and pursued enlightenment.” (See his Nobel Prize lecture.) In this activity, I ask students first to “collect nature” and, second, to arrange it (on desks, on free space). Third, we pay attention to the arrangements the group has made. And then we reflect and discuss the process, the results, and how we can use our experience to help us interpret Ikenobo Sen’o’s insight.
by Dr. Maughn Gregory
The following table provides practitioners with both the aims of contemplative pedagogy and the methods that can achieve those aims. Note that most of the methods – practices – address multiple aims, and thus can have a broader effect on the student experience with mindful learning. This chart is not comprehensive, but can serve as a guideline to pursuing contemplative practice in one’s own courses, and for experimentation with practices, especially those that meet specific learning goals:
Aims and Methods of Contemplative Pedagogy
- Ancient Greek and Roman schools of philosophy
- Asian wisdom traditions including especially Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism
- First Nations spiritual and political traditions
- Monotheist monastic traditions and contemplative communities (e.g. Quakers)
- American transcendentalists: Emerson, Thoreau
- Neuro-science, Medical and therapeutic uses of mindfulness (e.g. MBSR)
- New physics (relativity and quantum mechanics, emergence theory, string theory)
Aims / Purposes
- Improve Teaching and Learning
- Make classrooms places of safety, peace, non-anxiety, dignity, authenticity, compassion and social cohesiveness
- Cultivate two kinds of heightened attention / non-distraction:
- Broad: open awareness
- Narrow: sustained concentration
- Cultivate somatic awareness and skill
- Invite content and personal experience to challenge and interpret each other
- Cultivate intuitive understanding of content
- Make well-being an aim of education
- Inquiry / Study
- Avocational Inquiry
- Existential Inquiry
- Political Inquiry
- Practices of Self-Transformation: from craving, aggression, fear, stress, greed, etc. to equanimity, solidity, openness, compassion, etc.
- Self-Reckoning with regard to ideals/aspirations identified in the inquiries
- Inner Self-Work, e.g. meditation. journaling, self-examination
- Outer Self-Work, e.g. renunciation, simplified living, mindful speech, diet and exercise, honorable sexuality
- Movement between theory and practice: revising ideals in light of insights gained in intentional, experimental practice
- Cultivation of Social, Political and Ecological Relationships
- Ethical interpersonal relationships
- Intentional community
- Ecological relationship & stewardship
- Inquiry / Study
Methods / Practices
- Somatic Practices
- Walking meditation
- Yoga and tai chi
- Mindful eating
- Mindful working
- Body scan meditation
- Attention to posture, movement, breathing in the classroom
- Mental Practices
- Sitting meditation
- Meditative inquiry
- Silence and stillness
- Disciplining Personal Habits
- Mindful diet and exercise
- Mindful speech
- Simplified living
- Social Practices
- Dialogue and deep listening
- Corrective friendship
- Political Practices
- Making political institutions
- Political work outside institutions
- Political critique / witnessing / truth-telling
- Non-violent protest and disobedience