Using Meditation in the (Digital) Classroom

David Lynch Foundation image: three students meditating


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I decided to bring meditation practice into my Rhetoric and Writing class against the firm advice of nearly everyone I’d talked to about it. Most of my friends and colleagues said it sounded like a nice idea, but, “would you really want to be that teacher?” In other words, they wondered if my students would take me seriously. These are sensible concerns, but, in the curious and compensatorily over-confident spirit of teaching this class for the first time—and in a digital classroom to boot—I went for it anyway.

Each Monday and Wednesday, for the first few minutes of class, I lead the group of fourteen undergraduates through a mindfulness meditation. I base it on a practice called the Three-Minute Breathing Space. Basically, students sit in silence, eyes closed, and I ask them to focus their attention on their breathing. I vary it week to week, but usually I suggest that they become aware of the state of their physical body, their thoughts, and their current emotions. Sometimes I use the ambient noise in the room—it’s a windowless, basement classroom equipped with about thirty Mac desktops and a projector, so it has an audible hum—and draw their attention to the sounds and other background conditions that they might usually ignore. Often I refer to specifics that seem relevant on the day: the weather, the energy level in the room, the time in the semester, or even the week’s workload. It’s different every time, and some days, when I feel especially in need of a minute to collect myself before teaching a class, I play a recorded mindfulness meditation over the classroom speakers and join them.

Meditation has become an integral part of my life over the last few months. I find it helpful for overcoming anxiety, improving concentration, and finding a deliberate, accepting approach to daily experience. Because it’s been so useful to me, I thought it would be a good tool for my students to have as they approach their own anxieties about writing. I did a little research before the fall semester and discovered that mindfulness meditation has been proven to raise exam scores and improve concentration and focus in high school students, and it is used more and more frequently to create calm, attentive classroom environments. Many professors have begun to incorporate what's called contemplative pedagogy into their innovative teaching practices at the college level to encourage creativity and reduce stress. Not only that, but David Lynch is a huge fan; the image above, from his foundation's website, illustrates how unexpected it might look to have students close their eyes and sit still during class. But, recalling how exhausted and overwhelmed I tended to be during college, I figured if nothing else meditation couldn’t hurt my group of sophomores and juniors.

So far, I’ve been impressed with the results. I notice a marked difference in the way students engage with me and with one another on days when we start class by meditating. They look at me when I speak. They look at one another when they speak. The few times we haven’t meditated, the class has felt especially inattentive to me—many of them unsubtly check their phones under the table or just zone out. The omnipresent smart phone phenomenon is especially perplexing to me as an instructor in a digital classroom. It seems baldy contradictory to prohibit their access to technology when I’m also encouraging its use and promoting digital resources throughout the semester.

During one meditation, I decided to try calling their attention to their phones. As an example of feelings they might currently be experiencing, I brought up that persistent, gnawing sense of distress—mental, physical, and emotional—that they might feel when they can’t easily see or access their phones, even for the few minutes that their eyes are closed to meditate. I mentioned that they didn’t need to change this feeling, or judge it, but simply notice it if it was there. That day, not a single person in class picked up their phone for the full seventy-five minutes. I didn’t ask them not to, but calling their awareness to their own reliance on it seemed to pose some sort of challenge to them.

I’ll readily admit that this is an ongoing experiment. Teaching a class for the first time is experimental in myriad ways. I look forward to getting some mid-semester feedback from the students to hear if our daily meditation sessions are something they like or find useful. But, for now, I’m pleased with the conscientious quality of attention I have in class.

If you’re interested in using mindfulness meditation in the classroom, UT’s Center for Mental Health has a number of great resources and classes available in person and online (they offer recorded meditations online here). In addition to theirs, I like to use this downloadable set of recordings from UCLA. For my part, I’m going to continue thinking about ways that meditation can enhance learning, even though to some it might not seem like a “productive” use of time—I have a feeling that deep investments in the myth of incessant productivity (perhaps a result of late capitalist anxieties and the ensuing impact of corporate approaches to learning on the college campus?) are at the root of these unsubstantiated suspicions.


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