Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Contemplative Education: Modeling Mindfulness in the Classroom

A sunrise over a frost-covered pasture, behind an apple tree.
Just as when enjoying every moment of a sunrise,
mindfulness requires non-judgmental observation.

Barbazat and Bush, writers of Contemplative Practices in Higher Education: Powerful Methods to Transform Teaching and Learning refer to mindfulness as "the practice most widely incorporated into higher education" (2014, p. 98), yet mindfulness remains difficult for students to define.  

Nonetheless, faculty committed to contemplative educational practices, and faculty who model specific mindfulness behaviors in the classroom, can help students learn to understand the essence of mindfulness.

Defining Mindfulness

Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, in his  Mindfulness in Plain English, refers to it as "pure awareness" (2002, p. 138), "nonjudgmental observation," and an "impartial watchfulness" (p. 139).  He goes on to explain that mindfulness "is not thinking" and "it does not get involved with thought or concepts," and "it does not get hung up in ideas or opinions or memories" (p. 140). Faculty ask for a type of concentration mindfulness practices can enhance during lectures, when they want students to be "in the moment," taking notes as they listen so they can quietly reflect on the ideas later, perhaps in a paper or online post.  Faculty also often ask for negative capability, or the ability to hold two contradicting ideas as true at the same time, a type of mindful concentration students must practice when faculty present hot button issues, wanting students to accept information without, as Gunaratana states, getting "hung up in opinions or memories."  University faculty, however, even those who model a mindful presence in the classroom, may not realize that mindful classrooms rarely exist without structured guidance towards mindfulness.  Furthermore, practicing mindfulness in the classroom can be difficult for students and faculty both, all who have learned to live in a world that promotes narcissistic behaviors such as overt defensiveness against criticism or new ideas, or clinging to assumptions to protect the self or one's unique identity. 

Modeling Mindfulness: Silence and Hospitality

Radical Presence: Teaching as Contemplative Practice presents two ways faculty can model a mindful presence for students is by incorporating both silence and hospitality into the classroom experience.  On moments of silence in the classroom, O' Reilley reminds us that "The classroom, in today's multimedia culture, may be the only site of reflection in a student's day" (1998, p. 7).  Of hospitality she writes:

Hospitality calls me to consider the singularity of each person, the diversity of needs.  The discipline of presence requires me to be there, with my senses focused on the group at hand, listening rather than thinking about what I'm going to say - observing the students, the texts, and the sensory world of the classroom. (p. 9)


The extended moments of silence to which O'Reilley is referring allow faculty to create a classroom space for students to practice mindfulness, for both students and faculty to notice what is happening in the classroom, and to move beyond mindfulness to thinking.  Mindfulness must occur before thinking, and thinking must occur before answering, discussing, or writing.  A respectful silence that does not last long enough may promote "off the cuff" responses, responses that stem only from personal opinions or experiences, or responses students guess the professor may want to hear instead of authentic, thoughtful responses that allow for true assessment of learning objectives and outcomes.  Faculty who incorporate silence into the classroom are modeling how to create a space others can use to be mindful.  The faculty member must set aside his or her ego and embrace what may be an uncomfortable silence in order to simply observe what is happening in the classroom.  This allows for more accurate and authentic assessment of the levels of proficiency of student learners.


The very specific activity O'Reilley explains as an act of hospitality is one with which many faculty are familiar, that of taking attendance (1998, p. 8).  She uses a method similar to the "Student info cards" method explained by Barkley in the text Student Engagement Techniques, which suggests faculty keep index cards about each student completed by each student (2010, pp. 113-114).  Although there are several other ways to learn more about students in order to promote successful learning suggested by Barkley, O'Reilley uses the note cards as a way to have a mindful presence in the classroom each day as she marks attendance on the reverse of each student's individual note card.  "Hospitality," she states, "defines a space for the visitor - the student - to be herself, because she is received graciously" (p. 8).  Again, the faculty member must set aside his or her ego in order to focus on the acceptance of the students in the moment, as they are, each individual on each individual day.  

More than being a "tip" or "strategy," for classroom management or retention, silence and hospitality are mindfulness behaviors faculty should model for students, especially students struggling with narcissistic behaviors such as speaking out for attention or suffering from feelings of isolation or otherness.  By following their professors' examples, students can learn to negotiate social interactions in and out of the classroom more effectively.

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Barbezat, D. P, & Bush, M. (2014). Contemplative practices in higher education: Powerful methods to transform teaching and learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Barkley, E. F. (2010). Student engagement techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint.
Gunaratana, Bhante H. (2002). Mindfulness in plain English. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications.
O'Reilley, M. R. (1998). Radical presence: Teaching as contemplative practice. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/ Cook Publishers HEINEMANN.

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Please contact the author for permission to republish.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Contemplative Education: Modeling Gratitude in the Classroom

a butterfly on a sunflower in front of a red barn.
Finding ways to express authentic gratitude.

Gratitude, as most college students will understand, is a sense of gratefulness, an appreciation for what others give, or thankfulness.  Just as simply as students should be able to define or explain gratitude, each should each be able to demonstrate or give an example of what behaviors, or speech acts, demonstrate gratitude: Generally, a "Thank you."  

What students may not know is that people who exhibit prosocial behaviors that demonstrate gratitude are more satisfied in life than those who do not display the same behaviors.  They also may not understand the antithesis of gratitude, which is entitlement, a value and set of behaviors associated with narcissism.  

Just as Gunaratana (2002, p. 90) teaches that a positive emotion can replace a negative emotion, Twenge and Campbell assert that "One of the best ways to combat entitlement is to be grateful for what you already have" (2010, p. 241).  This can include stating thanks or behaving in other ways that show appreciation, like taking great care with an item on loan or keeping the classroom tidy.

Whether what faculty have are abstractions, like the attention or respect of students, or commodities and resources, like comfortable classroom furniture and access to technology, faculty can model gratitude in the classroom to help encourage students to do the same.

Opportunities for Authentic Gratitude

When modeling gratitude in the classroom, faculty must model authentic gratitude.  Faculty may already find themselves saying "Thank you," when students turn in work, but several additional opportunities to express true gratitude may present themselves throughout the term.  For example, faculty are generally genuinely grateful when students ask insightful questions, compliment the lesson, or arrive to meetings prepared and on time. Such behaviors should warrant a specific comment, such as "Thank you for asking an insightful question," or a personal note.  These are speech acts, which go beyond kindness and display an action that demonstrates the transference of gratitude.  Only with the speech act is the student aware of the faculty member's gratitude, and therein the prosocial behavior is modeled.  

Faculty can also encourage students to take pride in the classroom and show gratitude for having it made available to them by asking them or reminding them to take good care of it; cleaning up after themselves, turning off computers and lights, and leaving the boards clean and ready to be used by others.

Avoiding Entitlement

Furthermore, words and actions that demonstrate entitlement must be avoided.  Although all faculty have at one time been in classrooms where resources are scarce, technology is broken, or supplies are missing, faculty members must refrain from behaving, specifically verbalizing, as though they are unequivocally entitled to those things.  Just as modeling mindfulness, compassion, and gratitude can help students learn to live their lives by those values, modeling the opposite can have the opposite effect.  For example, faculty who leave trash in the classroom show little to no appreciation for the efforts of those who do keep the classroom clean and ready for the next person.  Students may follow that example and leave their own trash, as well.

As Arthur Zajonc emphasizes, the material items we are missing in the classroom are not worth as much as the opportunities we are presented that help us model gratitude. Higher education, he says, must focus on "a 'revolution of the spirit' that changes mental attitudes and values," not "the 'improvement of material conditions'" (2013, p. 90).


Gunaratana, Bhante H. (2002). Mindfulness in plain English. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications.
Twenge, J. M. & Campbell, W. K. (2010). The narcissism epidemic: Living in the age of entitlement. NY, NY: Free Press.
Zajonc, A. (2013). Contemplative pedagogy: A quiet revolution in higher education. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 134, 83-94. DOI: 10.1002/tl.20057

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Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Please contact the author for permission to republish.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Contemplative Education: Modeling Compassion in the Classroom

Tarot card image for "The Hermit"
Overcome the "Cultural Shadow"
Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen defines compassion while explaining the difficulty of teaching students to have compassion: "Compassion is not a behavior," she says, nor an "action," nor an "act of obedience" nor "even because we want to be good people" (1999, p. 34).  

So what is compassion? How do we do compassion?  How can faculty model compassion?

Defining Compassion

"Compassion" Remen continues, "emerges from a sense of belonging: the experience that all suffering is like our suffering and all joy is like our joy" (p. 34).  She goes on to argue that American individualism isolates individuals and often prevents the feeling of connectivity necessary for the discovery or remembrance of compassion.  She refers to this damaging effect as "the cultural shadow," (p. 35) and in it echo the narcissistic traits of our society as written by TwengeCampbell: vanity, antisocial behavior, and an overwhelming desire for uniqueness.  However, "Education," Remen wisely argues, "holds the greatest promise for healing the wounds of the cultural shadow" (p. 35).  

Modeling Compassion in the Classroom

There are ways faculty can model compassionate behaviors and help students discover compassion through a sense of connectivity to others, a sense of community. Modeling compassion in the classroom opens up the potential for us to help students become happier people by being more compassionate people.

Self Compassion and The Sharing of Joy and Accomplishment

Kathryn Byrnes offers an extended example of how faculty can model compassion in the classroom.  She profiles "Gil," of The Academy, a school with a contemplative orientation that defined compassion as "the ability to maintain one's own sense of self along with a sense of belonging to a larger group" (2012, p. 2).  In a section of the article called "Serving Others (Teaching with Compassion)," she explains his methodology.  
  • One aspect he modeled was self-compassion, his "attempt to be more accepting of his own personal anxiety and self-criticism" (p. 4).  His self compassion allowed him to have more compassion for his students.  
  • Yet another aspect was his willingness to create a relaxed environment for learning by being present with his students.  For Gil, being present included playing soccer with them and allowing the students to see his love for it (p. 4-5).  His love and joy became their love and joy, and vice-versa.  
  • Most importantly was his willingness to listen to students without interruption and to mirror students' accomplishments (p. 5).  In this way their accomplishments were his accomplishments, and Gil created a sense of connectivity with and among his students.  

In other words, Gil modeled compassionate behaviors.

Practicing "The Clean Slate" through "Loving Friendliness"

Gunaratana teaches that "Compassion is a manifestation of loving friendliness in action, for one who does not have loving friendliness cannot help others" (2002, p. 93-94).  The pain of "resentment" and "indignation," he says "can cause uneasiness, tension, agitation, and worry" (p. 93).  In order to overcome those negative feelings and have a greater ability to help others, faculty must practice what many of us have come to learn as "the clean slate" principle, where we offer students with whom there has been a confrontation, a "clean slate" when he or she returns to class.  The mental process necessary to enact a "clean slate" or practice compassion through "loving friendliness" can be transformative, both for faculty and for the students for whom they model the behavior.  "You can balance a negative emotion by instilling a positive one," says Gunaratana (p. 90).  

Gunaratana continues:
You start out by banishing thoughts of self-hatred and self-condemnation.  You allow good feelings and good wishes first to flow to yourself, which is relatively easy.  Then you do the same for those people closest to you.  Gradually, you work outward from your own circle of intimates until you can direct a flow of those same emotions to your enemies and to all living beings everywhere (p. 90-91).

This process of enacting "loving friendliness" is the antithesis of the narcissistic tendency to live in the isolation of "the cultural shadow," as Remen calls it. Just as the profile of Gil demonstrates how the students' joys and accomplishments were shared by Gil, the "clean slate" principle demonstrates how faculty can model for their students how compassionate behaviors can help ease a shared suffering. Not only are there implications for retention, but these practices reiterate the very pragmatic advice of Barkley: "Humans have a basic need to be part of a social community.  Students will engage more in classroom-based learning if they feel they are welcomed, valuable, contributing members of a learning community" (2010, p. 110).


  • Barkley, E. F. (2010). Student engagement techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint.
  • Gunaratana, Bhante H. (2002). Mindfulness in plain English. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications.
  • Remen, R. N. (1999). Educating for mission, meaning, and compassion. In S. Glazer (ed.), The heart of learning. (33-50). NY, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.
  • Twenge, J. M. & Campbell, W. K. (2010). The narcissism epidemic: Living in the age of entitlement. NY, NY: Free Press.

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Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Please contact the author for permission to republish.