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Navigating Our Differences in a Mindful Classroom

Navigating Our Differences in a Mindful Classroom

Daniel P. Barbezat and Mirabai Bush, authors of Contemplative Practices in Higher Education, suggest ways to modify mindfulness practices in the classroom to account for variability in students’ backgrounds and beliefs.


Omega Institute Navigating Our Differences by Daniel P. Barbezat and Mirabai Bush

One of the great advances in higher education over the past 50 years has been the increase in variation among students, faculty, administration, and staff. This has deepened the learning within classrooms, greatly enriched both our institutions and our society, and given opportunities to a far greater number of people than ever before. We believe it is important to stress “variation” rather than “diversity” because as difference (diversity) rises, we need to keep a focus on our common connection (variation). We acknowledge difference and also hold our commonality.

To deny differences is to remove an important aspect of self-determination. Yet to frame difference as defect or fault can be harmful. Of course, denying difference can be harmful, too. Claims of color blindness can be alienating. Experiments have shown that ignoring race in order to be politically correct stunts communication and connection and that attempting to ignore race actually deepens racial inequality. We are all variations on a theme: in the context of contemplative practices, while contemplation and introspection is common to us all, we come to these practices from various contexts and understandings, and ignoring differences will not bring us together.

While the significant achievement of increasing variation in our institutions has made our teaching and research far richer, it has also brought new and complicated challenges. Just as in other parts of the curriculum, practitioners of contemplative practices must learn about and adapt to the new conditions. The dimensions of difference are far too varied to chronicle here, but we can suggest some approaches through the use of examples.

Like almost every other aspect of this type of work, the first step is deep awareness of oneself and of the students being addressed. This seems simple, but without careful inquiry, we can easily miss important aspects of our students’ lives and the opportunity for helping them to engage with our courses more deeply. An example of this is the use of silence in the class during an exercise. This seems like a positive and simple act, especially in lives that are bombarded with distractions. However, students who have felt traditionally silenced by formal education may meet the command to be silent with tension and resentment. This can be easily addressed without making any assumptions about who these students might be by establishing at the outset of the exercises that the silence is an opportunity for an internal experience that will result in more participation and involvement rather than less. This sounds like a simple setting of the context, but it is now mindful of the potential differences in responses to the request for silence, and it benefits all students with an increased sense of the motivation for the exercises.

Another example of what might seem simple is for students to close their eyes to focus within. For some students, this is a path for potential demonic possession. For others who have suffered trauma and do not feel safe closing their eyes in a group, this is potentially a disturbing situation. Clearly you do not have to engage with students at their level of belief about demonic possession or their past trauma: you can simply invite students to close their eyes or to leave them open in soft focus at a point about six feet away. This avoids discussion of the particulars of what students bring to class yet allows them to choose a safe way to relate to the exercise. Becoming more aware of the contexts that students bring with them allows us to foster safer, more inclusive environments for all students.

Researchers and teachers are devoting increasing attention to the implications of race, class, and sexual orientation for the practice of meditation. While contemplative and introspective exercises are not all meditation, we can learn from studies focused on the outcomes of meditative practice. The aim of this inquiry should be to come to understand difference so that the exercises are broadly inclusive, not distorted by our preconceptions of difference. We recognize that while we are looking at the implications of difference, we cannot prejudge the nature of an individual by his or her class, race, or sexual orientation. The presumption that a particular group needs a particular form of practice can be as alienating as giving no thought to difference. The real point here is that we want to establish a frame in which students from the widest range of backgrounds feel welcome and safe.

The critical first step in this process is to confront your own preexisting beliefs and biases. Many of these operate below the conscious level and can be unpleasant to examine. This requires time and attention because most of us have convinced ourselves that we do not discriminate against others, even mentally. While most of us do embrace principles of equality and social justice, cultural norms we have learned through years of exposure and countless heuristics render these principles tenuous, especially since most of what we are doing requires a quick reaction. We are beings designed to use perceptual data very quickly to make judgments. Indeed, many times these skills are essential. Since most of our responses operate below the level of conscious choice, we often create environments or react to situations that preclude establishing contexts for all students to participate. We need to become aware of our underlying beliefs and make sure that we are choosing our responses rather than simply following old and potentially inappropriate heuristics.

A large literature has developed on this subject of implicit beliefs and attitudes. Behavioral studies as well as neuroscientific studies have focused on the nature and influence of our implicit assumptions and attitudes. You can even start to explore your own implicit attitudes at the Project Implicit website. A deep and sustained inquiry into the nature of your own biases is the best way to ensure that you will cultivate an open environment accessible to the greatest number of students. 


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