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Distracted: How Mindfulness and Meditation Transformed a College Classroom

“I was able to feel relaxation, tranquility, focus.” – Dan Suriano
“It helps get my thoughts and feelings in order,” – K.J. Miller
“The mandalas brought us together and cleared our minds” – anonymous
“I enjoyed it so much, I couldn’t stop [when the assignment was over.]” – Ventura Simmons
“helped me calm down at times when I felt like I was going to explode, figuratively.” – Nick Valvano
“The experience changed my outlook on awareness.” – Hunter Ventura
“This project helped me get back into meditation” – Lucas Von der Heyde
As a freshman, I became very overwhelmed. The meditation project helped release pressure.” – Geoff Hoyt
Learning meditation … was extremely helpful to help me cope with the stress of freshman year in college.” – Tory Carroll
“Through mediation, I was able to find a sense of peacefulness and happiness when dealing with stress. It strengthened my faith and helped me to control and rid myself of unwanted emotions.”  -Alivia Ayers


For 21 days, students who were both in a Duquesne Learning Community (sharing a residence hall, classes and experiences as a group of freshman) and in my Global and Cultural Perspective Class, choose a meditation practice from an Eastern tradition and practiced it in a small group.

The project was conceived after reading Maggie Jackson’s book Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age.  The book was assigned as common reading for all students and faculty in the learning communities, along with an essay to prepare for her campus visit next month.  Ms. Jackson brings to light current research happening in the neurological study of human attention. Measurements of alertness, orientation, and executive functions have come under scrutiny. Studies are emerging that demonstrate even four days of mindfulness meditation training can improve visual-spatial processing, working memory and executive functioning.

This was not a huge revelation to me.  I have spent nearly thirty years reading, practicing, teaching, and leading retreats for contemplative prayer and meditation practice in the Catholic tradition. I have explored, through reading and workshops, Ki Gong, Yoga, Tai Chi, and Transcendental Meditation. I mention each semester in class the ongoing conversations between the Dalai Lama who claims Buddhist meditation is akin to a science of the mind and Harvard neurobiologists uncovering through FMRIs support for the claims of Tibetan Buddhists about the inner workings of our human brains.

Attention control is a muscle, one that needs to be exceptionally stronger in a life now marked by tsunamis of information, disinformation, and LOL cats. Meditation (what western mystics call contemplation) trains the mind:

  1. to focus on the present, which includes letting go distressing images of the past and apprehensive images of the future,
  2. to decenter, which increases our self-mastery over avoidance and overengagement,
  3. to control our reactions, broadening what Victor Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning, calls the space in which you can decide how to react to a situation,
  4. to think about our own thinking, what philosophers called metacognition and makes personal goal setting and delaying gratification possible.

The opportunity of Duquesne’s Learning Community opened the door for me to explore religion’s contribution to focus and concentration with students.  Maggie Jackson’s book served as a jumping off point for our assignment.  I researched the Attention Network Test created by Dr. Jim Fan, and took it myself.  Students were given the opportunity to take it as a measure of before and after, but opted out of that part of the activity.

Several weeks into class I asked the students to separate into four groups to begin their 21 day group assignment. The girls choose Yoga, other groups (all boys) choose Deepak Chopra meditation video on Youtube, a meditation practice involving the making of mandalas, or a mindfulness recording from the selection that the Duquesne Counseling Center makes available online for students and faculty. They practiced together whenever they could, kept private journals during the activity, and researched its origins in the mysticism, philosophy, and belief structures of Eastern faith traditions. I would hear snippets about plans to meet later, how the girls were sore from yoga, and twice I came across a group working together on Mandalas on a bench on campus. Despite sharing residential halls and four classes together, student’s claimed it was this activity that helped them forge friendships with each other.

Presentations at the conclusion of their practice revealed a transformation I had not expected. More than half were continuing the practice beyond their assignment and mentioned benefits that stretched into their personal lives. The atmosphere in the classroom changed. Everyone became more engaged. Students claimed an increased ability to manage stress, sustain motivation, and prioritize goal completion.

The benefits of mindfulness (techniques of Buddhist meditation that are approached separated from their religious roots), have begun to appear in classroom curriculum.  Learning to Breathe: A Mindfulness Curriculum for Adolescents to Cultivate Emotion Regulation, Attention, and Performance is just one example of a classroom program tailored to the needs of adolescents in order to help them manage stress, strengthen emotion regulation and attention, and improve well-being.

I close with two caveats to all the wonderful research that is emerging in classrooms (caveats that lead to some specific advice for parents below).

The first caveat stems from my experience leading several hundred teen retreats; some kids tune into a meditation practice being introduced, and others sit resentful at the waste of time. For lack of a better term, I have come to understand different brains tune in to different meditation practices as though they were on different frequencies (and those frequencies change over time). A chime and music can help focus the mind of one person and cause chaotic distortion in another. Be willing to experiment and beware a one size fits all method of introduction.  Some like movement (Ki Gong, Tai Chi, Whirling Sufi Mystics), some like music (chanting, chimes, gongs, and becoming lost improvising a familiar piece on a well worn instrument), some like nature (Byrd Baylor’s book The Other Way to Listen sent both my children into the woods practicing meditation practices that stay with them to this day), others like to surrender themselves to the voice of a master as they learn to control breathing or guide their thoughts in relaxation. There are some who find the still contemplation of a difficult math problem to be an act of decentering meditation.

The second caveat stems from the western tradition of spiritual direction.  What the East calls meditation, the Christian west calls contemplation. Catholics have wonderful masters in St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, Meister Eckhart, and Evelyn Underhill. The Orthodox have the Desert Fathers and the Way of the Pilgrim. Mystical experience is defined as an encounter with the Other, an unselfing, as transcendence that frees you for a higher purpose.  There is also a prayer path the East calls contemplation and we (the west) call meditation.  In this path we are guided into (usually religious) imagery and listen for the voice of the divine. This type of spiritual practice can be easily distorted and confused by our own egos (or by ill prepared guides). The authentic voice of the divine is not knowable in the moment, rather it is only known by the fruit it bears.  This type of mediation requires a spiritual director or a community that stands to guard against distortions such as narcissism, self-loathing, or fanaticism that can result.

Mindfulness and meditation practices can be for our children and teens a great source of emotional health, meta-awareness, and resilience. Like any good practice, they should be approached attentive to how they are being received in the lives of the children and teens we seek to serve.

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    • Sr. Faith on October 27, 2013 at 11:48 am
    • Reply

    What a great way to help students experience transformation in many ways. It will impact their lives in so many ways. I really enjoyed reading the article. What my generation took for granted is coming alive today in new ways. Wonderful!

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