Published in the VATESOL Summer 2017 Newsletter, Vol. 20, Issue 2.
Can we carve 5 minutes out of our class to invite our students to sit still focusing on their breathing? Most educators in today’s hectic world would most likely think they can’t, but giving this practice a try might be worth it, and even transformative. The information gathered from several schools in the United States shows that this approach known as mindfulness certainly pays off. According to Siegel (2007), attending to the richness of our here-and-now experiences creates scientifically recognized enhancements in our physiology, our mental functions, and our interpersonal relationships. Within this framework, the purpose of this essay is to provide an overview of the field of mindfulness by focusing on its definition and origin, and featuring an example of its application in an Intensive English Program in the United States.
What mindfulness means
Mindful Schools, a nonprofit training organization dedicated to the exploration of mindfulness, describes this concept as a state, a trait or a practice. We can have a moment of mindfulness (state) but also have a general ‘set-point’ of mindfulness (trait). Additionally, we can do intentional formal practice of mindfulness using different postures and activities such as seating mindfulness, mindful walking, and mindful eating. During formal practice, mindfulness is said to be simple but not easy. It is simple in that the only thing it requires from us is to be attentive. In seating mindfulness, for instance, we are encouraged to set aside some time of our day to intentionally focus awareness on the present moment. This can become complex because, as soon as we set out on this endeavor, we realize our mind starts to wander into the past and into the future. This is completely natural and, therefore, to be expected as our brain is wired to do exactly that. However, by gently bringing our thoughts back to the here and now over and over again, we give our mind a much-needed break that frequently results in feeling vibrant, alive, and at peace. The cultivation of this practice enhances reflection and compassion towards ourselves and others because mindfulness means being aware, being conscientious, with kindness and love.
The origins of mindfulness
Mindfulness has attracted a lot of buzz lately. Nevertheless, it is not a new fad. Although it is usually associated with Buddhism, Siegel (2007) wisely points out that direct experience in the present moment is a fundamental part of Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish, and Taoist teaching. Therefore, mindful awareness has a long tradition in the history of religion and contemplative practices. At the same time, mindfulness as is defined in the scope of this article is completely secular, and the practitioner maintains his or her own beliefs. In this sense, in the 1970’s, Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, developed a secular mindfulness-based stress reduction program (MBSR) for adults with certain clinical conditions that is still used today. The program consists of an eight-week course that teaches participants how to regulate pain, anxiety, and chronic pain, among other physically and psychologically intense situations. Almost five decades of research have led Kabat-Zinn (2012) to conclude that the practice of mindfulness holds the possibility of not just a fleeting sense of contentment, but a true embracing of a deeper unity that envelops and permeates our lives.
English language learners experience mindfulness
English language learners in the United States often face multiple challenges that test their ability to cope with stress and build resilience. Mindfulness practice can certainly be instrumental in this scenario. Just as an example, in the classes I teach for the Intensive English Program in the Virginia Tech Language and Culture Institute (VTLCI), National Capital Region, I have offered a mindfulness-based approach over the last several months. This has taken on different forms depending on the course and the needs of the students. For instance, during the fall of 2017, VTLCI featured an 8-week elective class that focused on mindfulness and brain-friendly strategies for improved learning. Upon the completion of the course, the participating students shared reflections like these:
“At the end of the journey, I feel reenergized and with positive thoughts. In fact, my childhood dreams have come back to my busy mind. The young kid who spent all his early life dreaming is now playing in front of my eyes. As a result, I am thinking about taking a sabbatical to restore my dreams. This mindfulness journey is the break I should have taken before” (Wael).
“After this course, I feel lucky for the opportunity to learn, and I feel passionate about learning more. This course has inspired me to try new, relaxing ways of learning and experiencing new knowledge” (Sultan).
“I really liked this class because it taught me how to be alert and focused. My classmates were very friendly; we shared our feelings, opened our hearts to each other, and released anxiety by letting off the steam. The relaxation part was the most exciting part to me because we learned how to calm our mind and keep a clear head. Mindfulness is a very interesting subject that everyone should be aware of in order to be content and focused” (Majed).
A 5 minute guided seating meditation
Photo courtesy of Sergio Guerrero
Guided seating meditation exercises can vary in terms of allotted time and the specific task the students are invited to do. The following description simply prompts the posture that most likely enables the student to focus on breathing for 5 minutes. The script reads like this: “Let your chair support you; allow your eyes to close; take a deep breath through your nose and gradually let the air out through your nose; make sure your feet press firmly on the ground and your back is straight but comfortable; your arms can relax alongside the body or with hands resting easily in your lap. In this position, you are going to spend five minutes paying attention to your breath as it goes in and out of your body. When your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your breath. Finally, when you hear three chimes, allow your eyes to open slowly.” For more detailed guided meditation exercises, see Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness for Beginners (2012), and many other resources readily available online.
As an educator with over thirty years of experience in Argentina and the United States combined, I have often encountered among my students cases of apathy, anxiety, and depression, which often result in school drop-outs or even more serious outcomes. Consequently, I consider it my duty to introduce tools the learners can use to connect with themselves and others more deeply and, perhaps, achieve greater emotional balance. Over the last couple of years, in the field of mindfulness I have found multiple resources based on the most current scientific research to make this task more effective and rewarding. Ultimately, and regardless of our subject area, mindfulness can transform our approach to teaching. It is not a “quick fix” to make everything around us look rosy. Rather, it is a tool that develops self-awareness and awareness of those around us through the power of observation. Mindfulness practice, just like physical exercise, builds strength, flexibility and endurance, all of which is necessary to face life’s challenges, be they academic or otherwise. Mindfulness can be a gift that we humbly offer our students and that may touch their lives in powerful ways.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2000). Cultivating Positive Emotions to Optimize Health and Well-Being. Prevention and Treatment, 3.
Harrison, Paul. The Mindfulness Movie: How You See Can Change Your Life. Fargo, ND: Media Productions, 2013. DVD.
Jennings, P. (2015). Mindfulness for Teachers: Simple Skills for Peace and Productivity in the Classroom. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2012). Mindfulness for Beginners. Boulder, CO: Sounds True, Inc.
Siegel, D. (2007). The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.
About the author
Photo courtesy of Jeremy Mines
Dr. Monica Mulholland is an ESL instructor at the Virginia Tech Language and Culture Institute, National Capital Region. She holds a Ph.D. in Spanish Literature, a Master’s degree in Foreign Languages and a Graduate Certificate in TESOL. Dr. Mulholland is also a free-lance educational consultant. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and www.monicamulholland.com