Learning Deeply: A Mindfulness Case Study
by Jody-Lynn Rebek
My son Gabriel, with his bright smile, and twinkling eyes, asks me innocently amidst our conversation, “Mom, are you a butterfly?”. Besides my heart melting, I think – yes, I am! I am like a caterpillar in a cocoon swirling and whirling in the darkness preparing to surface as a butterfly. I too push and search for answers, avenues of meaning, learning, and transformation during this pandemic. I am both nervous and comfortable in this uncertainty. I feel like I have been here before. I hope to emerge more focused and clear about my life’s priorities. Meditation, reflection, exercise, and conversation with loved ones ground me and nudge me towards exiting my cocoon with an outburst of colorful creativity as I imagine how I will recreate my life during and following COVID-19.
Pandemic – Panic, Pain and/or Possibility
The pandemic brought an explosion of directions, deprivations, and devastation, transforming our personal and professional lives. The word crisis in Japanese kanji translates to “danger meets opportunity” and in Greek, it is defined as a “turning point” (Rebek, 2020). During the pandemic, people have been engaging in the opportunity to reflect on their life. For instance, many privileged people stopped participating in sports or other recreational and enjoyment activities, leaving space for personal reflection. Individuals reflected on ways they can transform their lives, work, and education for the better. This reflection led to deeper connections with loved ones and a heightened awareness of what and who was truly important to them. Albert Einstein (n.d.) states, “I think 99 times and find nothing. I stop thinking, swim in silence, and the truth comes to me”. This is our time in the cocoon.
For others, this time has not been as insightful and has instead increased mental health issues, and stress, especially psychosocial stress associated with social isolation (Bushell, Castle, Williams, Brouwer, Tanzi, Chopra, & Mills, 2020). These scholars suggest due to the uncertainty and ongoing nature of the pandemic, Ongoing Traumatic Stress Disorder (OTSD) may arise for individuals who do not find healthy coping methods. Even before the pandemic, students, and faculty alike faced stress, depression, and anxiety (Brooks & Anumudu, 2016; Regehr, Glancy, & Pitts, 2013). Many new faculty faced stress related to work-life balance, gender, culture, teaching responsibilities, and unclear expectations (Eddy & Gaston-Gayles, 2008). As a new full-time female professor, I have experienced these stressors firsthand.
In addition, some suggest a reliance on technology increases stress and unhealthy tendencies. Yet at this time, we need technology to maintain our work, education/learning, and connectivity with others. Dr. Doraiswamy, a brain scientist and physician from Duke University states, “technology is changing the brain and mind” and to optimize health, people need to balance between digital and natural worlds (Stackhouse, 2020). To protect me from getting engaged in a downward spiral of negativity or a technologically-connected lull, I engaged in mindfulness. Currently, I find that without mindfulness practice (20-minute mediation daily as part of my morning ritual), I am susceptible to negative thoughts, anxiety, and distraction. With regular mindfulness practice, I am calm, focused, positive, and I make healthier decisions and experience eustress (Nelson & Quick, 2017). I consider the stress that the ongoing emergency of the pandemic will bring to myself and my students.
As a scholar and professor and mindfulness practitioner for over 30 years, I have witnessed how mindfulness can also engage students in learning deeply both personally and professionally. This article explores both our current online teaching/learning challenges and coping strategies, as well as a case study that shows how mindfulness is thoughtfully incorporated into undergraduate teaching. Participants of the case study experienced self-awareness, and well-being through mindfulness, which may also promote student engagement in our online world.
“Solitude reveals what a mirror cannot” (Wheelan, 2018).
During the pandemic, mindfulness practices like meditation promote positive psychological states and outcomes (including, physical, emotional, and social health), while counteracting negative psychological stress-based issues (Bushell, Castle, Williams, Brouwer, Tanzi, Chopra, & Mills, 2020). Dr. Doraiswamy recommends that we can balance our brains between our natural and digital worlds by engaging in the outdoors, meditating, and relaxing 1-hour before sleep (i.e., no Smartphone use; Stackhouse, 2020). Academic and scientific research has shown that mindfulness improves physical and mental functioning (Siegel, 2018). When thoughtfully and carefully designed by practitioners, mindfulness can be integrated into post-secondary courses effectively (i.e., ethical, meaningful, safe, and educationally aligned).
With the abrupt change to online teaching, many professors approached this change differently. Some professors have no experience with teaching online, while others have taught online often. Professors may avoid, approach with hesitation, or welcome with excitement the opportunity to translate their classroom into an online platform. Students also respond similarly to this change as some may avoid, hesitate to engage in, or welcome the online learning environment. Faculty are well-positioned to support student learning and provide strategies, for both themselves and students, to engage in online learning collaboratively and in a healthy way.
In my personal experiences and struggles with learning early in life, mindful reflection clarified my focus, awareness, and attentiveness, resulting in success. Mindfulness is a human capacity and contemplative contemporary practice of being still, fully present, accepting, and aware of life with a non-judgmental, compassionate perspective. Through my research, and the past efforts of contemplative scholars, mindfulness is a:
- Practice of being (affective dimension and one that promotes a peaceful, relaxed stillness that instills calm, compassionate attentiveness over time),
- Process (cognitive dimension and one that leads to a transformed mindset; Anderson, 2016; Edwards, 2016; Ragoonaden, 2015), and
- Presence (our spiritual dimension embodies behaviour, how we engage in life and interact with others; Rebek, 2019).
After a long and continued practice with mindfulness, a person’s neurobiology changes, the quality of consciousness is enhanced, and people are fully aware and integral (Goldman Schyler, 2010). Mindfulness fosters well-being or maximizes human potential with restorative effects (Ragoonaden, 2015; Kabat-Zinn, 2003). I was curious to understand how undergraduate students in a leadership course would experience a mindfulness intervention.
Mindfulness in Undergraduate Coursework = A Case Study
Thirty-two students enrolled in the leadership course were invited to participate in a mindfulness intervention and qualitative research study (i.e., semi-structured interviews, post-survey, personal journals, a focus group, observation/field notes, course artifacts, audio-visual recordings, meditation records, and engage in individual mindfulness practice). Thirteen participants agreed with informed consent and assisted in co-creating the intervention: a five-minute Headspace guided meditation, prior to class, two times a week for six weeks. Based on past research, and to better prepare students, I presented quiet, self-reflective activities related to students’ leadership development prior to introducing mindfulness. Mindfulness must be an invitation as some students will jump at the opportunity, and others may struggle, especially if it is their first time in a quiet psychological state.
The key to this study was creating a safe space for participants and this required me to establish a positive mindset and a comfortable relationship with students. To create a safe, non-judgmental space, I shared my vulnerability throughout the course. Vulnerability required self-awareness and courage to share my perspectives and experiences honestly and openly with students. Self-awareness is nurtured by mindfulness practice, reflection, and feedback from others, which were employed in the course via journaling, and discussions, combined with written and verbal peer-feedback (Daft, 2019). Safe learning communities promote healthy coping practices, authenticity, and interpersonal relations founded with greater kindness. Kindness is an important competency in our courses and for humanity (Schawbel, 2018).
I also found mindfulness helped my students to learn more deeply. Participants’ cognitive, affective, and behavioural domains were used to evaluate the impact mindfulness had. “This short-term mindfulness intervention affected the following dimensions:
- cognitive (self-awareness, clarity, and openness),
- affective (relaxation, congruence, and empathy), and
- behavioural (confidence and self-improvement)” (Rebek, 2019, p. 189).
Seventy-five percent of participants reported enhanced levels of self-awareness. Participants also reported that mindfulness enhanced: focus, deep honesty, open-mindedness, optimism, creativity, calmness, being genuine, and accountability. Mindfulness and leadership were integral and intertwined for some, which motivated them to become better leaders (Rebek, 2020). Since higher education has a critical role in preparing students to achieve their highest potential, carefully planned pedagogical designs that integrate mindfulness into academic settings could instill deeper learning and success.
Perception, Possibilities, and Preparation
Mindfulness promotes psychological well being, academic preparedness, and a mindset for learning. When faculty employ contemplative learning and teaching approaches, such as mindfulness, they nurtured honest self-reflection and encouraged students “towards greater congruence with confidence and empathy” (p. 199). Faculty have an important role to play in setting the context and process for creating “safe learning communities that facilitate meaningful, contemplative learning” (Rebek, 2019, p. 199). In this way, students will feel comfortable, accepted, and supported to explore their internal perspectives (which can be frightening for many). We want our students to engage in learning, and we want to make a meaningful difference in their lives. Providing students with opportunities to nurture awareness will help them to be more attentive, accepting, and to form deeper intentions to participate holistically in their learning (Siegel, 2018).
Our internal mindset, beliefs, and perspectives guide us and create our experiences and relationships, both internally and externally. These perspectives determine what we draw our attention too and what we prioritize. It is important as faculty, to provide opportunities for mindful reflection or meditative inquiry (Kumar, 2013). For students and for ourselves, mindfulness will enable us to recognize and acknowledge our present mindset amidst the COVID19 pandemic. What is our present mindset? How does this mindset infuse our online teaching and learning experiences? Faculty and students who engage in mindfulness may deepen their awareness of these perspectives, discover answers to these questions, and embrace acceptance. “Once you are comfortable with uncertainty and move to acceptance, infinite possibilities will begin to open up in your life (Tolle, 2005). Mindfulness awakens an awareness of our perspectives and can promote acceptance leading us to engage fully in our life and our learning, promoting well-being and deep learning. Mindfulness helps us to prepare for the experiences we encounter, primed with positive psychological states and healthy perspectives. Thus, we can emerge from our cocoons like butterflies embracing all our colours, renewed, and ready to fully engage with life and learning in a meaningful way.
Dr. Jody-Lynn Rebek, PhD, is an Assistant Professor at Algoma University.
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