- The Blue Pearl: The Efficacy of Teaching Mindfulness Practices to College Students
Between fall 2003 and spring 2011 I integrated contemplative practices into ten courses with a total of 877 students. Nine of these courses carried credit for the core undergraduate curriculum, either in literature and arts or ideals and values, and students elected my courses from a menu of options. Individual courses ranged from 12 to 409 students. During two of these years, I conducted detailed human subject research using a number of surveys, gathering both quantitative and qualitative data with first-year undergraduates on their experiences with contemplative pedagogy. These courses dealt specifically with art and religion, focusing on traditions where the visual arts are intricately connected to religious practice. I gathered more subjective data in all of the other courses, including large lecture courses on world art from 1500 to the present. In general, my students were not majors in art or religious studies, but came from many disciplines within the arts, social sciences, and sciences, including business and engineering. This essay describes the process and results of the research I conducted with two undergraduate assistants, Katie Irvine and Mindy Bridges. Besides summarizing the findings, I also describe student responses to teaching a specific mindfulness practice—the bow—within a large lecture course with undergraduates. It is notable how little actual data exists about student experiences, and this prompted me to undertake the research that forms the basis for this essay.1
I begin with a few comments on my understanding of contemplative or mindfulness practice and my role as researcher. There is no single way to describe or engage in contemplative practice. The Latin contemplari means to observe, consider, or gaze attentively. This definition gives clues about the varied forms of contemplative practice, which include sitting, standing, walking, and lying down; using attitudes of not doing; deep listening, pondering, and radical questioning; guided imagery and active imagination; exercises with the body; focusing techniques such as those developed by Eugene Gendlin; concentrated language experiments with freewriting, poetry, and journals; beholding; and creation of visual images to represent such experiences.2 The [End Page 63] word mindfulness is often used to describe contemplative practice. In its most basic form, it means moment-by-moment present awareness, which is available to everyone, regardless of religious or spiritual orientation.
Broadly understood as methods to develop concentration, to deepen understanding and insight, and to cultivate awareness and compassion, these practices can have a profound impact on a student’s experience both in college and beyond. Specifically, teaching students techniques of awareness, concentration, and means of disciplining their attention is absolutely essential in our era of fragmentation, ever-increasing speed, multitasking, and continuously interrupted attention. While contemplative practices are rooted in the world’s religious traditions, I often tell parents and students that the application of these practices in a secular educational context can enhance the educational experience in unique ways. Students develop new techniques of awareness, they learn to refine their perceptual and observational skills, and they are encouraged to take chances and to foster attitudes such as curiosity and wonder rather than cynicism about the world in which we live.
Introducing contemplative practices into the classroom results in new educational practices and pedagogies. For example, in a course titled The Dialogue of Art and Religion my students learn about Russian Orthodox icons, Himalayan Buddhist thangkas, and Navajo sand paintings through studying cultural and social history, religion, formal visual analysis, and creative processes. I define this interdisciplinary teaching as a form of comparative visual studies. I normally teach this class to eighteen or twenty first-year college students. Students also learn about the practices of prayer and meditation that are central to Christian, Buddhist, and Native American traditions through sustained reading and discussion. They read accessible books about contemplative practice such as Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness.3 In each class, we practice simple techniques such as bowing, sitting in silence, breath awareness, and daily writing exercises.
Over the past decade my students have talked about how these mindfulness exercises help to foster an atmosphere of respect, noting...