Why We Are Here – Mindfulness in the University Classroom

School is all about learning new things and training your brain. You can’t learn something new if you don’t know what’s already in your head.

It’s the first day of a new semester.  I’m standing in front of 40 faces, or rather five faces and 35 tops-of-heads: most of my new students are buried in their phones. Most of my students think they are here to fulfill a Humanities requirement.  It’s not untrue but I have other ideas as well.

And so I begin. “Why are you here?”

Pause. Silence.

I am met with blank stares.  No one really knows what to make of the professor who spends the first few seconds of the very first class just sitting and breathing.  So far, the consensus seems to be that I’m just weird.

“I don’t mean existentially.  I mean, why are you in university?”

A few hands go up.  Some say that they love learning.  Others admit that if they don’t come, their parents will make them pay rent.  Many profess that they want to get a job and need a degree to begin.

All beautiful responses because of their honesty. Then it’s my turn to offer my answer.

The way I see it, we come to university for two primary reasons: to learn “stuff” (a technical  academic term) and to train our minds.

In this class, I tell them, we will do both.  We are going to learn stuff.  But memorization is not the point.  Nor does it matter if you agree with any of the ideas I offer this semester.  All I ask is that you have an open enough mind to consider the ideas and see how they fit.

Now about training our minds.  How can I possibly ask you to examine new ideas if you don’t know what’s going on in your head?  Or if your brain is so stuffed with stress that you can’t focus?  Can any of us learn at all if our minds are so full of judgments that we can’t let ourselves be open to new things?

So I introduce mindfulness, an experiment we are going to conduct all semester long.  We are simply going to pay attention to what is happening as it’s happening without judging it.

Once again I am met with some blank stares, and more than a few raised eyebrows.  My heart beats faster.  I get nervous.  Will they like this course?  Will I do well?  Then I breathe.  It’s not about me.  And so, we begin.

My primary goals as a professor are to get students to think, to wonder, and to recognize their own presuppositions. In this Religious Studies course, where I challenge students to consider what religion really is and what to make of things like pole dancing for Jesus and the Flying Spaghetti Monster, training our minds to be more receptive and curious is a prerequisite. Being more receptive helps us manage the demands that come with being human. Mindfulness shows us that our wandering, often critical minds are actually normal. Practicing allows me to see that I don’t have to take my students’ reactions personally, and allows them to approach the ideas of the course with less reactivity.

By the end of the semester, the ten mindful minutes we take at the beginning of each class become (relatively) normal.  I might still be the weird prof. who makes all her students sit and breathe but I am also the prof. who recently got thanked for treating her students like human beings  After all, that’s the goal of the Humanities: to help us uncover what it means to be human. Mindfulness helps us do that.