Mindfulness has moved in the last decade from the marginal into the mainstream. Once associated with mystical cults and alternative lifestyles, it has now moved solidly into medical and social respectability, for both clinical and general populations, backed up by large numbers of academic studies. Universities around the world are using it more than ever, in a variety of ways, including optional sessions for students and having it regularly for new students and staff.
Three of the leading figures in the transition are Jon Kabat Zinn, creator of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School; Mark Williams, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford and co-author of the bestseller Mindfulness and Willem Kuyken, who is the current Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford, Mindfulness Research Centre. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” Another definition comes from Sharon Salzberg, author and campaigner: “Mindfulness isn’t just about knowing that you’re hearing something, seeing something, or even observing that you’re having a particular feeling. It’s about doing so in a certain way – with balance and equanimity, and without judgment. Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention in a way that creates space for insight.”
I believe there are five benefits for universities.
Improved mental health
Mindfulness helps both students and staff become more philosophical and accepting, better able to negotiate the strains and stresses of their lives with equilibrium. The more one practices mindfulness, the greater the benefits. Katherine Weare, Professor of Education at the University of Southampton has written persuasively on this topic, including A guide for cultivating mindfulness in education with Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. The response from government and universities to the apparently growing mental health crisis is to throw more money into counsellors and therapists, with more medication and drugs for students. There is of course a huge need for such reactive work, once students have fallen over the waterfall and their lives have hit the bottom. But mindfulness works at the top of the waterfall and seeks to build the capability of the student to manage their own minds, without recourse to drugs or an excessive reliance upon counsellors.
Enhanced relationships between academic staff and students
The calmer and more centred academic staff can be, the better overall they are able to connect with their students. The Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) by the month seems to be taking us further away from understanding what quality teaching is all about. Without a human connection between the teacher and student, no high-quality teaching or transition of understanding can take place. A calmer, more centred mind allows the teacher to see the student as they genuinely are in front of them, not as they imagine them to be. Mindfulness is a journey from an imaginary world into a real world.
Mindfulness boosts learning
When students are anxious, agitated or otherwise disturbed, it is harder for them to absorb their academic subject. Practising mindfulness helps their minds to calm down and to focus on what is before them. The practice is particularly helpful at times of major tests, interviews and examinations. Students can often find that they do not perform at their best in these fraught situations, because their mind is running away with them. It is akin to thinking when one is running down a staircase quickly: the very act of thinking about what one is doing can impede the task. The more mindful one becomes, the easier it is to perform at one’s best, at whatever level that might be.
More harmonious universities
Mindfulness allows practitioners to become more aware of themselves and others, to be less judgmental and their behaviour to be less remote. Excessive gaps between the best- and worst-paid staff at universities do not help morale and mutual respect. If more university leaders were to practise mindfulness, they would be able to engage better with the concerns and lives of all their staff, and universities would become less polarised, judgmental places. Our own Medical School at University of Buckingham and medical schools the world over have found that learning mindfulness can be a very important and helpful part of every medic’s education. Craig Hassed, of the Faculty of Medicine at Monash University, is one of the leading researchers on the beneficial aspects of mindfulness in medicine.
The physical environment of the university
Mindfulness is all about a growing sense of harmony, within oneself, with others around one, and with the environment. The more one practises mindfulness, the more aware we become of the harm that we are doing to the environment, and the greater the sense of responsibility to care not only for the planet but for the physical spaces we inhabit in universities. A sense of separation from the environment and self-centred behaviour begins to dissolve. Quite simply, the mindfulness practitioner becomes more in tune and at one with everything around them.