I remember distinctly a couple of occasions where I have driven my car and reached my destination only to be bewildered that I do not remember anything about the journey. And, on other occasions, was equally puzzled at my inability to recall a discussion with my students. I am sure most of us experience moments in our teaching-learning cycles where we operate in an ‘autopilot’ mode and go about our day without being immersed ‘in’ the moment. The chaotic upheavals and demands on our time from the world around us keep us flitting from one task to the other without being ‘mindful’. Mindful living is not new. It is immersed in Buddhist philosophy where attention becomes paramount to living. In being mindful, one brings their attention to the here and now.
Although mindful practices have existed for a long time, Jon Kabat-Zinn, an American professor, internationally known for his work as a scientist, writer and meditation teacher, designed a program that made it popular and accessible to all. Forty years ago, Jon Kabat-Zinn pioneered a technique called mindfulness-based stress-reduction at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early 70s. Through an eight-week mindfulness-based stress-reduction (MBSR) program, Zinn helped patients struggling with life’s difficulties and physical and/or mental illnesses to cope with pain. Today, MBSR is used in every walk of life from training young school children to military and paramilitary forces in the army, navy, and air force. Zinn removed Buddhism from the practice thereby making it sans religion and accessible to all.
The west discovered “centeredness” only in the last 40 or 50 decades. For us, in India, our yogic traditions and meditative practices have focused on the aspect of being in the present moment for centuries. This is not a new concept for us. However, meditative practices come into our lives based on a prescription. What if the very same techniques of mindfulness can be used in our classrooms to harness the power of attention? Some of you probably already do.
What is attention?
If you observe the little boy in the photograph, you will notice that he is immersed in stacking cylindrical blocks from the biggest to the smallest to build a tower. His attention is entirely drawn towards placing the wood blocks one on top of the other. Despite the noise and chatter of other children, he does not waver from what he has set out to do. It is only after completing his tower that he looks away towards his teacher for approval.
As an experiment, close your eyes at this very moment. Would your focus be drawn to everything you have read in this article? Or is your mind wandering into areas of hunger, chores, a general sense of restlessness to get up and get moving? If it is, then your attention is not in the present moment.
Let’s try a small mindfulness experiment: close your eyes. Are you able to see, feel and hear things? You will notice almost instantly that your attention is immediately drawn to the silence of the moment, the momentary blankness of your thoughts or the very onslaught of thoughts itself. You will hear the sounds around you and feel the heat within your body rise. Being aware of your surroundings and being in tune with yourself helps you keep your attention on the here and now. There are no past worries or future anxieties to clog your present moment.
Why is attention important?
Earlier I stated that inattention clogs our present moment. Let’s take the analogy of a drain pipe. We’ve all experienced the clog in a sink. When there is a clog, things back up and cause a lot of unpleasantness. The more a drain is clogged, the more stress there is on the entire system and the possibility of a rupture. If our minds were plugged continuously, what sort of ruptures should we anticipate? I would think quite a few.
Mindfulness and attention are almost synchronically used. We teach mathematics, science, history, geography, English, economics and other subjects, but seldom do we teach our students to use the lens of mindfulness to filter their experiences through the faculty of their attention. What we do with our attention profoundly shapes our mental health and happiness. Mindfulness is a place of awareness where one notices and observes emotions and thoughts without judgment. We view ourselves from a place of compassion.
When emotional, social and academic pressures overwhelm our students, mindfulness practice will help them find a place of stillness. As Jon Kabat Zinn said, “Wherever you go, there you are.”
How do you bring this practice into your classrooms?
First, practice it yourself.
To begin, do one thing consistently everyday for five minutes. If you get a few moments in a day to walk – to the classroom, to the staff room or just about anywhere, focus on the sensations and the act of walking itself. Keep your attention focused on how you feel within your body and the sensations you experience as you walk. Feel the heel-to-toe rhythm as each foot makes contact with the ground. Feel the weight of your body pressing down towards the ground. Breathe deeply, filling your lungs, but not in a manner that leaves you strained or struggling. If your attention begins to drift, make a note of those feelings, emotions or thoughts without judgment and gently bring your attention back to walking. If you do this consistently, you will make a habit of bringing mindfulness into other parts of your day as well.
However, the key to success in sustaining a mindfulness practice in your own classroom is to ensure that you, the teacher, know and understand the practice yourself. Research data shows that bringing mindfulness practice into your classroom decreases stress and anxiety, increases attention, improves interpersonal relationships, strengthens compassion, and has a host of other benefits.
But how will you convince a classroom of digital natives who are battling sensory overload, attention difficulty or anxiety that mindfulness is a ‘cool’ thing to practice? I will tell you at the outset that it is not easy. The answer lies in patience and practice.
At first, your students will find it difficult to stay still. There will be a lot of fidgeting, giggling, moving and restlessness, but the key is to remain committed to helping them focus their attention.
You can pick any activity that could be done together. Since most of us deal with large classrooms, an outdoor activity may not always be feasible. Hence working for anywhere between 30 seconds to 5 minutes on focusing on their attention, on their breath before beginning your formal classroom instruction will make a powerful difference.
As educators, most of us strive to make our learners independent and successful citizens. Contemplative pedagogy (mindful teaching) in a teacher’s arsenal is “designed to quiet and shift the habitual chatter of the mind to cultivate a capacity for deepened awareness, concentration, and insight.” When you harness the power of attention for yourself as a teacher, you will be able to pass this incredible life skill onto your students. Why is this skill essential to learn?
In a study conducted on university teachers in south India, data revealed that 73.93 per cent of teachers are under occupational stress (Reddy and Poornima, 2012). Teachers also reported that stress levels affected their deliverables to students. In a system that is already overburdened, support for teachers may not often be available. Learning to manage occupational stress with the help of mindfulness techniques will help reduce stress and improve the quality of life.
Here are some activities to try in the classroom with your students:
Breathing: While seated, ask your students to close their eyes and then inhale and exhale deeply. Get them to observe how they feel, what they hear, smell and see. In doing this regularly, we learn to connect with our minds and bodies, we learn to slow down and embrace ourselves in the stillness.
Heartbeat: Ask your students to jump up and down in their places. Then have them sit down and place their hands on their hearts. Get them to close their eyes and observe their breathing, the rhythm of their heartbeats and everything else about their bodies.
Doodle art: Ring a bell or play the sound of a bell. Ask each of your students to doodle on a plain sheet of paper. You can give them five minutes to doodle whatever they like. This activity has an added benefit; you can continue the doodle the following day as well. Many students enjoy this activity and do not realize that they have already spent five minutes of their time in focused attention.
- Flook, L., Goldberg, S. B., Pinger, L., Bonus, K., & Davidson, R. J. (2013). Mindfulness for teachers: A pilot study to assess effects on stress, burnout, and teaching efficacy. Mind, Brain, and Education, 7(3), 182–195.
- Kabat-Zinn J. Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. Hyperion; New York: 1994.
- Reddy, G. Lokanadha & Poornima, R. Occupational Stress and Professional Burnout of University Teachers in South India. International Journal of Educational Planning & Administration. Volume 2(2). 2012, pp. 109-124.
The author is a Ph.D. scholar at the English and Foreign Languages University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.