“It is indeed a radical act of love just to sit down and be quiet for a time by yourself.” —Jon Kabat-Zinn.
What would happen if we spent the first five minutes of class not explaining, reading, taking notes, or discussing? What if we just sat there—in silence? What if we stepped out of our “thinking minds” before engaging in the usual thinking that goes on in class? What if we started by letting awareness take center stage?
In 2013, when I was a teacher at the American International School in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, I tried to find an answer to these questions by inviting all my high school students to engage in five minutes of silent, mindful breathing at the beginning of every class for an entire academic year.
On the very first day, I introduced the idea of mindfulness and invited my students to sit in a dignified posture, in silence, during the first five minutes. “It is not a way to fall asleep,” I explained, “but rather, a way to fall awake.” This is one of my favorite descriptions of mindfulness, the practice of paying attention nonjudgmentally and becoming aware of the present moment, whatever arises.
My invitation was received with disbelief. Some students looked horrified. Others smirked at each other. One girl asked dryly, “You want us to sit for five minutes without doing anything?”
“Yes,” I replied, smiling. “Let’s try and see what happens.”
The sound of a Tibetan bell led the class into stillness. Such an unusual experience made some of them giggle. But after the giggles, deep silence. Five minutes of simply sitting, free of distractions, breathing mindfully.
“Well?” I asked, as they opened their eyes again and shifted in their seats.
“It felt weird at first, but then it felt nice,” replied one 11th-grade boy.
“It made me sleepy,” said a freshman. Others didn’t seem to know what to say about it. No teacher of theirs had ever started a class this way. One of the students even challenged me, remarking: “You just made this mindfulness stuff up.”
But of course, I hadn’t made it up. I explained to them just a few more ideas behind the concept of mindfulness, such as the importance of training the mind to actualize its full potential, and mentioned the benefits it might bring them based on the growing evidence provided by research: greater stress reduction, more emotional stability, greater ability to respond to situations with more awareness instead of reacting automatically.
Surprisingly, after a few more sessions on the subsequent class days, no one felt the need to giggle anymore. The shared silence and stillness had become a comfortable and familiar routine for all. A week or two later, I rushed into class from a meeting and started class without the five minutes of mindfulness.
“Señor?” a student asked, raising her hand, “You forgot the mindfulness.”
I realized then that the practice had become a class ritual. Students would not accept starting class without those five minutes of silence. From that day on, any time I tried to jump into teaching mindlessly, the students reminded me that the five minutes of mindful breathing were a non-negotiable must.
The Mindfulness Movement
Since the introduction of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program in 1979, mindfulness has found its way into health care, psychotherapy, professional sports, the corporate world, and even prisons and the military. If people in all those fields had found that the cultivation of attention would render benefits, it is not surprising that mindfulness would receive the interest of educators. There is probably no other place in the world where the word “attention” is spoken more often than in classrooms. Students are told to pay attention, but they don’t seem to receive any systematic training on how to do it.
Organizations such as Mindful Schools and Mindfulness in Schools have developed programs and trained thousands of educators and students. Research shows that students have improved attention, better emotion regulation, and reduced stress and anxiety levels. Recently, the International Baccalaureate (IB) has included mindfulness into the Approaches to Teaching and Learning framework as one of the self-management skills that will improve the quality of education.
It was right before an IB exam that one of my students spontaneously emailed me to say: “Wanted to let you know I was having trouble reviewing yesterday because I kept getting distracted. Mindfulness actually helped me concentrate.”
This comment, along with the feedback I had been collecting anonymously throughout that year, convinced me that our five-minute ritual was beneficial for my students. As a complement to the practice, I would periodically survey students via SurveyMonkey, asking them if they were benefiting from it, if they felt calmer, if they felt it helped them stay focused during class. Almost 90 percent of students reported that the practice made them feel calmer, and nearly 80 percent said that it helped them focus in class. And since I had four classes every day, that meant 20 minutes of mindfulness practice for me. It meant starting every class from a serene place, balanced, centered, focused, and with a clear mind, which was, in itself, another benefit for my students. I felt better equipped to deal with daily stress and frustrations.
Looking back, this is what I learned from the experience.
Students welcomed the opportunity to be given the time and space to just be, without any stimuli. If we observe the day-to-day experience of youth (and adults), we realize that this opportunity is increasingly rare. The development of technology has made it extremely hard not to receive some type of stimulation at all times during waking hours.
Most students reported benefits from this practice, such as being calmer and more focused.
Students also reported that they gained insight into how their minds work. They noticed how easily their attention was pulled away by random thoughts.
A few students struggled at times to stay awake, which is not surprising given the wealth of evidence about the extent of sleep deprivation in adolescents.
I received several spontaneous emails throughout the year from students telling me how they had applied mindfulness to other situations. One note, from the captain of the boys’ varsity basketball team, described how, during a championship game when they were down by several points and the coach had been ejected from the game, he decided to lead his team in a mindfulness practice for his team. The team regained composure and worked together to turn the situation around. The captain credited mindfulness.
The experience had a spillover effect. As other teachers heard about it, I was invited into other classes to guide some mindfulness practices. Although I had moved out of the classroom into a counseling role, the following year, I was asked to lead a mindfulness practice for faculty during the first all-faculty meeting of the year. Something about this practice seems to resonate beyond the individual.
When the opportunity is provided, we take it and benefit from it. The societal automatic pilot seems to be busyness and hyper-stimulation. If we want to regain control over our lives to steer them into a chosen direction, we might need to create opportunities for mindfulness. If we want more flexibility in our thinking, we first need to be more aware of our thoughts. If we want to move in an ethical direction, we need to deepen our understanding about how our minds sometimes pull us out of the path we are trying to follow. If we want to be global citizens, we need to be fully awake individuals.
So, what if, as Kabat-Zinn states, this practice is a radical act of love? Could our classrooms turn into safe, empathetic spaces, ones full of attention and self-awareness?
Do you have five minutes?