Contemplative Studies in the Classroom
“Inhala por la nariz. Uno. Dos. Tres. Cuatro,” explains Victoria Smith, senior lecturer in Hispanic Studies. She sits at the head of a semi-circle, directing the students of her Intermediate Spanish I course in a relaxation exercise. Participants inhale for four seconds, hold their breath for seven seconds without closing their throats, and finally exhale for eight seconds. They repeat the cycle in multiples of three to feel more relaxed, though Professor Smith warns her students not to engage in this practice if they are feeling depressed or lethargic.
The 4-7-8 cycle is one of many practices Smith has introduced to her Intermediate Spanish I students. As a member of the Contemplative Studies Initiative at Brown University, Smith has been leading brief mediations and breathing exercises in her courses since 2004 in order to improve students’ focus and receptivity to the material.
“In language classes, there’s nowhere to hide. Your mistakes are right out there.
Feeling more relaxed with making mistakes is important,” she said, adding that she also wants to model “someone who’s integrated and balanced” for her students. To this end, Smith recently published an e-book, Yoga for College: Balance and Transformation, which focuses on the ways yoga concepts can benefit university students.
Smith started practicing mindfulness and yoga in her teens after noticing her tendency to become overly excited.
“I could tell that my mind was kind of a wild creature,” she said. “I realized there were things that I could do to calm and focus my mind and that I had the kind of mind that would be good in academia but I had to discipline it.”
She said the practice has improved her academic work as well as her social life and creativity. She has also seen positive results in the classroom, with participating students telling her the practices have improved their abilities to sleep and to communicate.
“It’s nice that there’s a teacher who cares about our mental state,” said Haley Moen ’17, a student in Smith’s Intermediate Spanish I course. “It’s definitely nice to take a break from the pounding in of the Spanish.” Moen said she has used the practices outside of class to improve her focus and help her sleep better. According to Moen, these practices have made her more aware of her mental state and breathing habits.
Erik Ehn, professor of Theatre Arts & Performance Studies, also incorporates contemplative practices into his course, “Acting Together on the World Stage: Writing and Political Performance.” As part of the course, Ehn and his students work with at-risk students at Central Fall High School, where they begin and end each session with meditative movement and breathing practices.
“Contemplation improves generosity, compassion, and readiness for action, and theatre being an ethical and social undertaking requires all three,” he said.
In one practice, the students form a circle and begin counting to 20. However, the process is slow and deliberate, and a student only says the next number when he or she believes it is the right time. “Really getting to 20 is not the purpose,” he said. “It’s about leaning into silence and patience.”
He said the high school students were initially amused by the contemplative practices but have since come to embrace them.
“It’s very short, but it helps pull people together,” he said.
Outside of the classroom, Ehn has led silent writing retreats where he said silence forces participants to detach themselves from their words and become more focused on the activity of writing. He is also organizing a month of silence for artists in December. Ehn said participants would have the option of remaining silent the entire month or of including moments of silence in their daily routine.
“A monk named Evagrius says that abstinence improves compassion and to obtain from speech enlarges her heart,” he said. “Myself, I’m very hard of heart so it will take a long time to open up, but it’s the right direction.”
Willoughby Britton, assistant professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, has been practicing meditation and mindfulness for the past 20 years.
She began practicing after a close friend committed suicide. Following her friend’s passing, Britton became overwhelmed by anxieties about death and safety. She initially focused on breathing and sitting practices, but over the years has branched out into designing her own practices to achieve specific goals.
After coming to Brown, she began incorporating contemplative practices into a pre-clinical elective offered to medical and Program in Liberal Medical Education students. She currently incorporates these practices into the course, “Mediation and the Brain,” which she teaches alongside Catherine Kerr and Jake Davis, and into her laboratory research, where her students assisting with research are trained in meditation.
In “Meditation and the Brain,” she said students read a number of articles on the effects of certain practices. By engaging in these same practices as part of the course, the students are able to better understand the articles and better discuss the articles’ methods and findings. Britton noted the importance of understanding these practices as she said many scientists currently studying mediation are unaware of the practices’ origins.
“We are actually producing really high quality scholars,” she said, pointing to the fact that Brown sent more undergraduates to the Mind and Life Institute – an organization that supports and conducts research in contemplative science – than any other institution.
Juan Santoyo ’15, who works in Britton’s lab, was one of the visiting scholars with the Mind and Life Institute. He said studying meditation in the classroom has given him the necessary tools to practice meditation in his own time. He also noted that these practices have allowed him to feel more engaged with what he is studying, to become more adept at handling difficult situations, and to perform better academically.
Santoyo also pointed to the value of having professors who could serve as role models in his meditative practice.
“They’ve always been very attentive to myself as a student and always willing to help in any way possible,” he said. “I encounter few other students who have such close relationships with professors.”
Contemplative pedagogy, or the incorporation of contemplative practices into education, is increasingly taking root throughout the country. Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching and The Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education are both exploring the benefits and uses of these methods in the classroom. At Brown, many students including Santoyo have explored contemplative studies through an independent concentration. The Contemplative Studies Initiative is currently working on getting Contemplative Studies established as a formal concentration.
This article represents the sole opinion of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Change-Magazine.