Mindful Breathing: Creating Counterpublic Space in the Religious Studies Classroom
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Mindful Breathing: Creating Counterpublic Space in the Religious Studies Classroom

. . . Let meKeep my mind on what matters,Which is my work,which is mostly standing still and learning to beastonished.The phoebe, the delphinium.The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart . . . —Mary Oliver1

How do we help our students keep their minds on what matters within a culture preoccupied with the trivial and spectacular? In this essay, I will explore how mindful breathing can be a powerful-yet-simple embodied practice of feminist pedagogy, especially in the teaching of Christian social ethics. Rather than a focus only on theory that can be debated, critiqued, or dismissed, focus on the breath develops the capacity to be present to bodily existence. This presence to bodily existence is a starting point for learning and knowledge production that regrounds students in their own lived material conditions. I argue that mindful breathing is a political act of self-care, not simply a self-soothing participation in the status quo.2 As a pedagogical strategy, mindful breathing is a bodily acknowledgment of one’s material conditions interrupting the mediation of reality through the spectacular.

Nancy Fraser’s concept of counterpublic space is useful in understanding [End Page 164] the importance of feminist pedagogy in a democratic society. Fraser explains that counterpublics are spaces at the service of groups excluded from dominant conversations of civil society. These counterpublics provide subordinate groups with “parallel discursive spaces” “to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs.”3 For Fraser, these spaces enable subordinate groups to question how reality is framed by the dominant political economy. Returning to Mary Oliver’s opening words, these spaces allow subordinate groups to focus on their work, and their own existence. The classroom can be one of these counterpublic spaces to the degree that it enables students to formulate an oppositional interpretation of their own identities, interests, and needs. This oppositional interpretation must first confront how contemporary culture obfuscates students’ reality through the spectacular.

Spectacle is a cultural process involving images that dominate public discourse through personal and collective imagination.4 Media spectacle is a cultural production that normalizes, and makes “common sense” of the political frames of exclusion, described by Fraser. The phenomenon of media spectacle necessitates exploring how this process distances us from our bodies, and lived material conditions. The all-consuming power of spectacle distances individuals from the experience of our own bodily existence, and disempowers us to act on our own behalf. To create counterpublics in the religious studies classroom necessitates pedagogical strategies that make conscious the operation of spectacle, and interrupt its inner framing of outer political and economic order. Media spectacle must be interrupted in order to enact Fraser’s concept of counter-public in the classroom. Mindful breathing is a nondiscursive practice making embodied awareness possible, and holds the possibility of empowering discursive capacity in regard to lived material conditions.

In this essay, I illustrate the necessity of mindful breathing as a feminist pedagogical strategy to create counterpublic space in two ways. First, I elaborate on the notion of spectacle in U.S. democracy, and demonstrate how this dehumanizing production of meaning in contemporary culture lends urgency to contemplative ways of knowing. Second, I will theoretically and practically describe mindful breathing as a pedagogical strategy in the classroom. I explore how mindful breathing can make conscious and interrupt the cultural production of spectacle, as a pedagogical strategy. I argue that in contrast to the spectacular, mindful breathing and other contemplative practices cultivate a capacity for “deepened awareness, concentration, and insight” about lived material conditions.5 This deepened bodily awareness serves as the ground for [End Page 165] social ethical inquiry in the religious studies classroom. Mindful breathing is an embodied practice reconnecting a person with the present moment. With the assault on reason in American civil society, ironically contemplative ways of knowing, like mindful breathing, may be a way to retrieve critical thinking in a culture of spectacle.6

As a form of contemplative inquiry mindful breathing is...


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