Chances are, if you’ve been to a yoga class lately, you’ve heard the term “mindfulness”. A tenet of Buddhism, it means being fully aware of the present moment without being distracted by things like texts, emails, to-do lists, worries, and whatever else makes the brain wander. It also forms the core of a new graduate program at Simon Fraser University—the first of its kind in North America.
The master of education in contemplative inquiry and approaches in education was born out of a need for more thoughtful approaches not just to teaching and learning but to life in the 21st century.
“One of the things students and many other people are feeling these days is the impact of multitasking, and they’re wondering why this is happening,” says Laurie Anderson, executive director of SFU Vancouver in a conference call with faculty of education professor Heesoon Bai. “A key part of a contemplative approach to education is to try to solo task. Having students pay attention to what’s going on in the present moment gives them a much more expansive perspective on what they’re doing with education and knowledge and maybe what they’re doing with their lives.”
Bai, who will be teaching in the program, notes: “Civilization is hell-bent on doing more and more, and that manifests in many forms of stress. People are rushing to yoga or rushing to their meditation class, then they end up rushing to the emergency ward, metaphorically speaking. We have to ask the larger question: how have we constructed our civilization so that the mode of being is that we’re always panicking and rushing?
“A graduate program is the perfect place for examining sociological and philosophical assumptions behind what constitutes knowledge and reality,” Bai adds. “There are really big questions that we can get at and see how our understanding is not just changing the way we live but also the way we perceive life and what it means to live well.”
Contemplative practices have long been part of eastern and western religious traditions, but they’re fast gaining traction in academia throughout North America. Anderson and Bai say that Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, and Penn State are just some of the universities that offer courses with a contemplative focus.
“We’re the very first North American university to have a graduate program, but virtually all of the major universities are focusing at least one course and sometimes many more on the role of the contemplative approach to education in the 21st century,” Anderson says.
He’s quick to emphasize that the program goes much deeper than what’s become known as “McMindfulness”: a quick fix to ease the stresses of modern life. The appeal of the practice has spawned a major industry, with mindfulness being marketed to everyone from parents and politicians to athletes and corporate executives as a technique for stress reduction and self-fulfillment. There are countless self-help books with the word mindful in the title; lululemon athletica even has a pair of shorts called “Mindful”.
“One of the dangers of the popularity of mindfulness…is that it becomes the fad of the moment,” Anderson says. “It can be appropriated and trivialized. However, the wisdom behind it, coupled with findings from neuroscience, show that there’s a very strong need for this, and the potential benefits—educationally and personally—for people are going to continue.”
Research backs up the positive effects of mindfulness. “The Effect of Mindfulness-Based Therapy on Anxiety and Depression: A Meta-Analytic Review”, published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology in 2010, found that the practice is a promising treatment for specific mood disorders. The following year, a study that appeared in Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioural Neuroscience showed that mindful meditation improved people’s working memory. According to the American Psychological Association, mindfulness has also been linked with: a greater ability to focus attention; increased cognitive “flexibility” resulting from activation of the brain region associated with adaptive responses to stressful or negative situations; less emotional reactivity; and even greater relationship satisfaction.
Mindfulness also helps health-care professionals develop deeper empathy and compassion, according to the APA. Bai says that such qualities are also beneficial to teachers and educators.
The program’s aims include having participants develop not only mindful awareness but also compassion, resilience, empathy, and emotional intelligence, along with enhanced teaching and learning skills.
Although it’s designed for teachers, vice principals, and other educators, the two-year program isn’t limited to those in the educational field. Anderson and Bai say there’s been interest from business leaders, health-care and public-sector workers, and environmental activists.
The MEd program is geared to working professionals, with courses offered every few weekends at SFU’s downtown Vancouver campus. The program launches this fall and has an application deadline of March 15.
“Achieving a calmer state of mind is something we can all work at,” Bai says. “I see the need for it every day.”