Sociology and Mindfulness Meditation
Clear your desk of your books and water bottles. Sit in a comfortable, but upright position. Bring your attention to your breathing. Notice your stomach expanding on your in-breath and contracting on your out-breath. At the sound of the chime, try to stay focused on your breathing for 10 breaths, with each inhalation and exhalation counting as one breath. If your mind starts to wander, try to note when this happens and then gently bring your attention back to your breathing until you hear the chime.
These instructions describe a short exercise I do in some of my classes when I introduce students to mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation is the practice of being fully present in the moment. By sitting still and just following our breath, mindfulness meditation helps cultivate awareness, attentiveness, and calmness. The roots of mindfulness meditation are generally associated with Buddhism but it is often presented in a secular fashion in the West.
At first glance, mindfulness mediation may not seem too difficult. After all, what’s so hard about staying focused on our breathing for 10 breaths? Harder than you may think! If you are like most people who do this exercise for the first time, you will probably find that your mind starts to wander sometime between breaths three and five. In my classes, I usually only have two or three students who can stay focused on their breathing for all10 counts.
Given the often hectic pace of life and the busyness of our everyday experience, it is not surprising that most people cannot stay focused on their breathing for more than a few seconds. My experiences interacting with and observing college students suggest that they are a particularly frenzied, frantic, and frazzled group. Juggling classes, jobs, internships, extra-curricular activities, family matters, and of course social lives, many students find it exceedingly difficult to “just be” in the present moment.
For a few years now, I have been incorporating mindfulness mediation exercises into a number of my sociology classes. Overwhelmingly, students have embraced these practices—and not just with enthusiasm but with a sense of relief and gratitude (which is not unexpected given the “record stress levels” that many of them experience). In a recent Introduction to Sociology class, we started with the 10 breath exercise, then moved to 30 seconds, 1 minute, and eventually got to the point where we started each class with 10-15 minutes of guided mindfulness meditation. At the end of the semester, I arranged for us to have a one-class “retreat” where we did three different meditations (seated, walking, and the body scan) for the entire class period. Many students said that was the single best class they had in college.
My use of mediation and other contemplative pedagogical strategies is part of a growing movement in education from pre-kindergarten through college. Teachers, administrators and even whole districts are increasingly incorporating contemplative practices into the school-day routine to help students deal with stress, a lack of focus and attention, and behavioral problems, as well as to cultivate compassion, empathy, and respect. For those interested in such contemplative pedagogies, there are numerous organizations supporting this growing educational movement such as Mindful Schools, Mindfulness in Education Network, Association for Contemplative in Higher Education, and The Garrison Institute.
The growing popularity of mindfulness approaches to teaching and learning is an outgrowth of what Time Magazine recently proclaimed on its cover to be “The Mindful Revolution.” This revolution is not just happening in classrooms but also in community centers, corporate boardrooms, prisons, governmental offices, hospitals, music halls, the military and even among the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. The reason for this proliferation is that there is a growing and overwhelming body of evidence that demonstrates the mental, physical and social benefits to practicing mindfulness. A good place to begin sorting through this research is the Mindfulness Research Guide which publishes a monthly newsletter (Mindfulness Research Monthly) detailing the latest scientific findings on mindfulness.
But even if you are convinced of the value of practicing mindfulness you may still be wondering what place it has in the sociology classroom. In addition to reducing students’ stress, improving their focus and attention, and increasing their self-awareness, practicing mindfulness meditation can actually reinforce some key sociological themes. When we sit still and follow our breath, we are training ourselves to respond to stimuli (thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations) with awareness and compassion instead of reacting to these things in a habitual and possibly hostile manner. Habitual reactions often add fuel to the fire whereas responsive awareness (seeing things for what they are) often results in greater understanding and even a dissipation of the threat.
Much like practicing meditation, being sociological also requires that we respond based on awareness rather than react based on habitual patterns. When we speak of the sociological imagination we are suggesting the ability to see the bigger picture, to be aware of the social situation and be attentive to the complexity of social processes. Those who lack the sociological imagination often react hastily to social phenomena based on their habitual patterns, prejudices, and preconceptions. In short, we can say that such reactions are unmindful.
Some of the most perceptive connections between mindfulness meditation and sociology were actually articulated by the students in my recent Introduction to Sociology class. Throughout the semester I solicited feedback from them regarding our meditation practices. At the end of the semester I asked them if they noticed any connections between our mindfulness exercises and the content of our sociology class. Here are some of the insights the students offered:
· This meditation helps us be aware of our own being. If we are not aware of ourselves, then we cannot be aware of others.
· Being mindful in the world is no different than doing so when meditating. It makes you focus on everything around you rather than letting it go by and not paying it any attention.
· Meditation is mindfulness of the body and surroundings. It helps clear our senses and see the world truthfully. This is where sociology begins.
· I think that mindfulness practices allow me to be aware of my surroundings which are helpful when thinking in a sociological way. I think it aids in seeing connections and thinking critically.
· Since this class and our mindfulness practices, I find it easier to connect academic and real-life experiences. It makes me feel as if I’m actually learning something worthwhile.
· Well, the mindfulness practice opens our minds and allows us to relax, and when your mind is open and relaxed it allows you to think more openly.
In many respects, these responses unknowingly echo what C. Wright Mills said was one of the defining features of the sociological imagination: “the vivid awareness of the relationship between experience and the wider society.” And it’s not just this one quote that suggests the relationship between sociology and mindfulness. If you read The Sociological Imagination you will see that throughout the text Mills often uses the word awareness—which is the most obvious synonym of mindfulness.
As far as I know, there are no documented connections between C. Wright Mills and mindfulness meditation (or Buddhism). Still, I’m intrigued by this unexpected synchronicity and if nothing else it affirms for me the link between sociology and mindfulness mediation. But don’t take my word for it or my students. Join the revolution and experience it for yourself.