Transforming a University Class with Mindfulness
Jana Brooks, Michelle Leduc, Angeline Timmerman
We, the students of Honors course 407, Exploring the Art of Mindful Living, included a football player, biologists, a newlywed, future teachers, a skeptic, a shaman, a comedian, Christians, a cancer survivor, mothers, a vegetarian, a future physician and a ballet dancer. To our surprise, as class began desks gave way to meditation cushions, shoes were given a rest from their owner’s harried strides, and an array of bells beckoned discussions rather than the voice of a professor demanding attention. Term papers were assigned with a twist: each student was to incorporate how mindfulness applied to his or her area of study. The usual PowerPoint presentations and scantrons were abandoned in favor of practicing mindful eating, tea ceremonies, guided meditations, and depicting the concept of interbeing through art. The traditional architecture of the classroom was abolished as we spilled out onto the lawn to practice walking meditation. As our class wound through the yard, our soft footprints became the trails of our transformation.
Through mindfulness we have begun to learn that we can change harmful emotions such as anger and frustration into positive energies. With the awareness that we possess these feelings, we can embrace them and know that emotions do not possess us. We can choose not to water harmful seeds and instead water the seeds that are positive and compassionate. Recognizing we can choose to do the work to transform our negative feelings, we have also become aware that while we were suffering, we failed to enjoy the pleasures life offers at this very moment.
Realizing that happiness exists in the present moment, our definition of “time” began to take a new form: “time” is simply moments that come and go, but it is what we chose to do with these moments that count. For example, one of the mothers in our class said: “I have two children, ages eleven and two, and through this practice I have realized that my children teach me about being in the moment. When walking to get the mail with my children, they both walk with a meditative stride, studying all that there is to see under their feet. Without their slow pace beside me, I would not have taken the time to stop, breathe, and notice that moss has begun to grow under the red leaves that have fallen from the trees.” One classmate pointed out, “By watering positive seeds in young minds, children will learn to think positively, and those seeds cannot be over-watered in today’s society.” Making the most of the moments that come and go in our lives, we discover the pleasures that exist in the here and the now.
The textbook for the class, Essential Writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, introduced us to the concept of “historical dimension” and “ultimate dimension.” We learned that the historical dimension contains our daily stressors: course load, work schedule, and family commitments. By learning to deeply touch our stressors in the present moment, we became aware of the possibility of touching the ultimate dimension. The awareness of liberation that came with this understanding was one of most meaningful lessons we took from the class.
The pre-med student in our class said, “My mindful practices of breathing, eating and walking have been my remedies for stressful days. It wasn’t until I began to look deeply that I realized these methods are a means of stress prevention.” When students learn that success in life is not about where they are going, it is about how they are getting there, it is the experiences that we have along the way that become important. With the study of the historical and ultimate dimensions, we have begun to realize that by living fully and deeply in the historical, one is able to make contact with the ultimate dimension.
Challenging the typical course offerings that provide students with an education solely for the future, our professor has focused on education for the present. He has given us the opportunity to be heard, exuded the quality of compassion, and shared the concepts every college student needs in order to enjoy the path of life, not the destination.
Enrolling in a Mindfulness course provides an opportunity to find community or as we now call some of ourselves, “Sangha Sisters.” A foundation of intimacy needed for building relationships can quickly be developed when students come to realize that by listening to each other instead of merely the professor, they are able to bond in ways that are not typical in a university setting. Students truly realize the nature of “interbeing” and recognize that their choices and behaviors affect the entire community. Our search for happiness and success that was previously satisfied by achieving an end, has been transformed by the recognition that “happiness is in the here and now.” At the start of the term, our professor led a group of individuals down a single path guided by mindfulness. Now that the term has ended, our single path has diverged into many. What began as a random group of students transformed into an interconnected community unified through the Art of Mindful Living. We breathe, realizing that this is a wonderful moment!
The Art of Mindful Living was an experimental course developed specifically for the Honors Program at Western Oregon University, where Dharma teacher Jerry Braza is a professor of Health Education. Twenty students from various disciplines attended the class, which met twice a week for ten weeks. The course will now be offered regularly within the Health Education curriculum.
The course’s theme was the integration of mindfulness into daily life. Each session began with sitting practice, followed by exploration of such practices as walking, eating, and tea meditation. Students read and shared insights from the book, Essential Writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, discussing how mindfulness can be applied to education, sports, medicine, and psychology. A journal assignment required students to reflect on how their “moment by moment” actions impacted themselves, family, friends, and the planet. For additional information on mindfulness and a copy of the course outline see: http://www.wou.edu/mindful
Jana Brooks, Michelle Leduc, and Angeline Timmerman are students at Western Oregon University where they recently completed an Honor’s Course on Mindfulness taught by Jerry Braza, Professor of Health Education at Western Oregon University. Jerry Braza, True Great Response, is also an Order of Interbeing member and Dharma teacher.