(p. 23) Strategies for Bringing Mindfulness to Emerging Adults
Emerging adults benefit from training in mindfulness, but they don’t always take to it easily. Often, students are enthusiastic about the idea of learning mindfulness but then have a hard time developing the skills in a meaningful way. In fact, mindfulness is tricky for anybody to learn. It is difficult to develop the ability to watch the movement of your mind with acceptance and patience. Similarly, it is difficult to find a method for teaching emerging adults these valuable skills.
As it turns out, there’s a knack to getting emerging adults to stick with meditation. In our experience, traditional methods of teaching mindfulness and meditation don’t engage students long enough for them to experience the benefits. These benefits—which include decreased feelings of pressure and stress, improved focus, increases in positive emotions, and greater self-knowledge—typically inspire students to forge ahead with their practice. The trick is finding a way to keep them engaged during the initial stage, when the practice can seem confusing and even frustrating at times. After considerable trial and error, we developed a model based on our understanding of what motivates emerging adults to learn and what impedes their progress. Embedded in the model are a number of strategies that we have found to be effective in capturing and holding the interest of our students.
In this chapter, we will explore these strategies. Although there is a fair amount of overlap, they can be divided roughly into three groups: strategies related to the organization and structure of the class, strategies related to general teaching techniques, and strategies for dealing with typical student reactions. We do not pretend that this is a complete list of learning techniques for this age group or for every cultural perspective. Still, these are the ones that have worked well for our students and us and will likely be helpful for you to consider.
• Emerging adults utilize mindfulness and meditation effectively if it is offered to them in ways that fit their developmental stage.
• You can use particular strategies to enhance learning when creating a class for teaching mindfulness to this age group.
• Organizational factors to attend to include careful consideration of your recruitment strategy and making attendance and practice mandatory.
• Teachers must work hard to maintain the motivation of the group.
• Students learn best when their questions are used to prompt teaching with stories and metaphors.
• Emerging adults bring unique perspectives to the group that you can work with to facilitate learning.
(p. 24) Organizational Factors That Assist Learning
Certain factors related to the structure and organization of the group seem to be crucial for an effective learning environment. When recruiting participants for a mindfulness group, there are benefits for creating a diverse group of students but also benefits for having groups of students who share some identity markers in common. Consistent attendance is important for maintaining a rich learning environment. Thus, developing and communicating clear requirements for participation are crucial for the group to thrive. Here are our suggestions for managing these tasks.
Diverse or Shared Identities: Both Can Bring Richness and Depth
When we began teaching Koru, we emphasized the importance of having a diverse group of participants. However, over the years we have come to learn that there are also advantages for having groups of students who have some shared identities.
We are fortunate at Duke to have students from all over the world, representing different cultures and different points of view. We also have students from a variety of socioeconomic groups, racial and ethnic groups, and regions in the United States and with a diversity of sexual orientations, gender identities, and religious beliefs. In addition, we have undergraduate students, graduate students, and professional students; thus, a wide range of emerging adults is represented. We find that a highly diverse group enhances mindfulness training in a few key ways.
Learning to identify the internal judgments we all make is an important first step in mindfulness training. Sometimes we see those judgments more clearly when we are faced with others who appear to differ from us in a way that seems important to us. Second, (p. 25) acceptance evolves as judgments are released. As students from diverse backgrounds see each other having similar struggles with present-moment awareness, they see commonalities rather than differences. Judgments are then naturally released. Third, the richness of the stories and the explorations of the group are influenced by the degree of diversity present. For example, in one class, a student from Thailand who had been raised as a Buddhist and had come to the United States to study biochemistry shared a story about the pressures he was facing as he adjusted to the university community. An African American woman from the southern United States who was studying at the divinity school was able to identify with his struggles and offered some wisdom from her own experience. Everyone in the group, including the teachers, benefits from these sorts of exchanges.
Sometimes though, a more homogenous group has greater advantages. Students who are going through similar experiences have shared challenges. The shared experiences often create a cohesive group who support and encourage each other’s mindfulness practice. For example, Koru teachers working within law, business, or medical schools report that their students share common struggles inherent to their study experience, providing a common understanding for their mindfulness discussions. It is helpful for students who believe they are the only ones struggling with their course work to learn that underneath the façade of “having it all together,” their peers are experiencing the same degree of stress and, perhaps, distress.
Additionally, students who come from traditionally marginalized or oppressed communities may find that they have a greater sense of safety if they are learning in groups of students with similar cultural backgrounds. This greater sense of safety adds to the openness of discussion and depth of learning. As part of her dissertation research, Miriam Ojaghi (2017), a Koru teacher at a small, Midwestern, liberal arts university, looked at the impact of Koru classes on underrepresented minorities in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) majors. She found that her students expressed appreciation for the opportunity to take Koru with other students of color. They felt safe talking about the stress they deal with in their daily lives related to racism and oppression. For example, one African American male student commented that he felt greater belonging on campus after taking Koru with other students of color because it helped him to see that other students had the same fears, doubts, and challenges that he had. He also said that his Koru class helped him feel newly empowered to pursue challenges that he perhaps wouldn’t have pursued before learning mindfulness. This student’s experience highlights the power of mindfulness training in the context of a group of students who share similar life stories.
Small-Group Learning with Peers Is Important
Emerging adults care about what their peers think. This is perhaps one reason that small groups in which the students have a chance to talk and listen to each other work best. In our experience, students learn meditation in a small-group setting more effectively than (p. 26) when they are taught individually. Although we both work with individuals therapeutically and often teach mindfulness skills, we have found that the dynamic of the small group provides direction and motivation for learning that cannot be produced in one-to-one teaching.
Scholars have examined the efficacy of different learning models, including the model called small-group learning (SGL). The title of one study (Gaudet, Ramer, Nakonechny, Cragg, & Ramer, 2010) mirrors our experience: “Small-Group Learning in an Upper-Level University Biology Class Enhances Academic Performance and Student Attitudes Toward Group Work.” In this study, the results showed that the SGL students had significantly higher final exam grades than their peers who were learning independently. Additionally, student attitudes were more positive toward the SGL model. These results are consistent with our experience and support our contention that emerging adults have the best chance of learning mindfulness and meditation if the teaching occurs in the context of SGL.
Much of the teaching in our classes is done during the check-in at the beginning of each class, when each student is given the opportunity to share his, her, or their experience in practicing mindfulness skills over the previous week. Typically, at each check-in, some students feel enthused because they are making good progress in learning the skills, whereas others feel discouraged by barriers they’ve encountered.
As the students share their experience, we take the opportunity to teach, often linking the comments made by different students. For example, the first student may say that he’s had a “good” week with meditation, and he describes feeling more relaxed and focused. The next student may say that her mind has been wandering; she has had a “bad” week and is feeling frustrated. The teacher can then ask the group (while taking the opportunity to comment on the judgments about a “good week” versus a “bad week”) if anyone else has had the same experience. Usually, there will be another student who can then share an experience and enlarge the discussion. Looking for ideas and solutions from other students is an effective way to help problem-solve and build a sense of community.
When the students see that their peers share some of their struggles, they feel more connected and less hopeless about the process; when they hear their peers relating improvements and successes, their motivation increases. The dynamic around these peer interactions is one of the driving forces behind a successful class. We believe the power of these interactions is one of the factors responsible for the overwhelming success of Koru.
Participation and Practice Are Not Optional
We have found that creating a structure with strict boundaries and clear expectations is crucial for this age group. Students are conditioned to be externally motivated when it comes to learning new information or skills. This means that if you want to teach them something new that can be difficult to learn, initially you have to require them to do the work. Once they have had sufficient experience with mindfulness and meditation, they (p. 27) will probably notice some compelling changes that will keep them interested. For many students, just a few weeks of required practice will help them cross this threshold.
Students have basically always been students. This may seem obvious, but what it comes down to is that their job has been to learn, for the most part, what others believe they need to learn. It’s just life as they know it. Even in college, when they are allowed to select their classes, they still have to read the books the professor chooses and complete the homework that they are assigned. This is the routine they know and are comfortable with, though they complain about it and resent it at times.
Students have very busy schedules, and they tend to complete tasks based on deadlines. “The math problems are due in the morning. I’ll get started on them at midnight.” “The paper is due at 5 p.m. tomorrow. I’ll start on it when I get up in the morning.” Not every student procrastinates to this degree, of course, but they are truly extremely busy. There are so many tasks they have to do that the optional ones often don’t get done, even if (especially if?) students know that it would be “good for them.” So, we have discovered that the course works best if mindfulness practice is one of those things they have to do.
Therefore, when they sign up for the course, they are told that attendance at all four classes is required. If they can’t clear their schedules and guarantee that they will be at each class, they may not enroll in the course. Similarly, daily meditation and mindfulness skills practice is required homework. We emphasize that it is not optional. The students are asked to log their meditation practice using the Koru app and expected to submit a completed log to their teacher each day. We don’t actually grade the logs, but the students usually complete them quite diligently, seemingly responding to our clear statement that it is an absolute requirement. They also have a required text for the course and reading assignments each week. We often encourage their reading by asking them to bring to class quotes from the text that interested them.
Of course, you have to communicate all of these requirements to the students with humor and warmth, or they are unlikely to proceed; but they are used to getting homework and know how to respond. It is effective to capitalize on this nice bit of conditioning. This approach also selects for the students who are most motivated to learn, the ones who are willing to make a commitment. Because an essential part of the learning is the small-group format, a fairly high level of motivation throughout the group is important for the group dynamic.
Making attendance and homework mandatory is a departure from the way mindfulness and meditation are usually taught, and we were initially reluctant to make this change. Perhaps surprisingly, the students responded to the increased structure by demonstrating dramatically increased enthusiasm for the class. This seems paradoxical, but, of course, everything about mindfulness is. If you require the students to practice, they are more likely to do it. If they practice, they will fairly quickly start to feel the benefits. Once they experience positive change, their internal motivation to continue begins to develop. Also, mandatory attendance allows the group process to thrive; it’s not possible to (p. 28) create a cohesive learning group if only some students show up for each class. By the end of the class, we expect the students to be internally motivated to keep practicing mindfulness skills and meditation. But you have to start somewhere, and we’ve learned that it is critical to create a structure that externally motivates emerging adults if you expect them to get off to a good start.
Teaching Strategies That Assist Learning
The next two strategies address general approaches to teaching mindfulness and meditation that we have employed in our model. Both of these strategies reflect our understanding of emerging adults as well as our experience with our students.
Maintaining Motivation Is Absolutely Necessary
Teachers must attend constantly to the motivation level of the students, or the class won’t get off the ground. This age group is reinforced by progress and improvement, and students tend to make rapid judgments about what is worth doing. This means that from the beginning you have to be very active, identifying progress and helping to translate it into practical gains. Similarly, obstacles to progress need to be assessed and surmounted lest the students judge the course to be a waste of time. This active approach differs from the more traditional methods of teaching mindfulness and meditation, which rely to some degree on the solutions and answers unfolding over time. With emerging adults, their impatience for improvement and change forces the teacher to use a much more engaged approach.
For example, in the first class, the students learn a skill called dynamic breathing. It’s a ridiculous-looking but highly effective breathing technique for managing stress and anxiety that involves pumping the arms and bouncing the knees while breathing rapidly through the nose. The students laugh with embarrassment as we teach the skill and sometimes express doubt about its usefulness. However, after a week of being required to practice it, they often find it very helpful. When we introduce the skill, we laugh and joke about how silly it seems and then suggest some situations in which it might be useful. “Next time it’s 3 a.m. and you are trying to finish the paper that’s due at 8 a.m., and you’re so tired and stressed that you can’t think, get up and spend 2 minutes doing dynamic breathing. I promise that your head will be clear after that.”
Sharing the successes of former students can also help. Sometimes we tell them about the student who said that dynamic breathing was working much better for her than her former strategy: lots of caffeine. She found that dynamic breathing kept her awake and alert while she finished her work, and then she could easily get to sleep once the work was done. “If I drink enough coffee to keep myself awake, then I can’t get to sleep once I’m finally done with my work. I really like the breathing because it keeps me awake, but only as long as I want to be awake.” We also sometimes mention the student who told the (p. 29) class, quite hilariously, how she would go into a bathroom stall in the library late at night and do “chicken breathing,” the students’ often used nickname for dynamic breathing. She said it worked very well when she felt so worried about getting her work done that she couldn’t think clearly. “Every time I get stuck, I just run into the bathroom and do chicken breathing. It works great and it also makes me laugh.”
Removing obstacles is similarly important. If during check-in a student expresses discouragement about his or her practice during the previous week, you can try to identify what is getting in the way and attempt to solve the problem. For example, a very common complaint from students is that they fall asleep every time they try to meditate. When you hear this, you can empathize with how tired they must be and then move on to the task of helping them find ways around this obstacle. Do they feel tired all the time? Probably they are not getting enough sleep in general, but they don’t feel they have enough time to sleep more (see “Feeling Pressed for Time” below). Where are they trying to meditate? “Lying in bed,” a frequent reply, will almost always lead to sleep in a sleep-deprived student. Look for ideas about other times and places to meditate. Also, suggest that the students focus on the more active meditation skills, like dynamic breathing or walking meditation. Sharing an example of a student who has found a good solution also helps. Sometimes we describe the student who at first found that the only form of meditation she could do and stay awake was dynamic breathing, but as she continued to practice, she eventually was able to stay awake during sitting meditations. Also, asking for ideas from the group is often highly effective. Almost always there is another student in the group who has similar difficulties and has ideas about how to work with them.
Another frequently cited obstacle is the opposite of the sleepiness problem: extreme restlessness. Chandra expressed a common problem when she said that her mind was so restless and wandered so much that she thought she was someone who just couldn’t meditate. A good place to begin when you hear this concern is by addressing the incorrect belief that someone might be constitutionally unable to meditate. We like to help the students distinguish between what is “hard” versus what is “impossible.” They are often surprised that it is hard to sit still and focus their minds, so they quickly jump to the assumption that it is impossible.
Students respond well to being reminded that they obviously can do hard tasks, or they never would have made it into college in the first place. Most students are familiar with the idea that they have to train their bodies if they want to accomplish a hard task like running a marathon; it makes sense to them that if they work out, they can run faster or lift heavier weights. For this reason, it is helpful to use an analogy between body training and mind training. You can try saying something like this:
If I asked you to bench press 200 pounds, you probably wouldn’t be able to do it, but you would immediately know that there is a strategy for getting to the point where you can lift heavy weights. You probably wouldn’t assume that it is not possible for you to lift heavy weights. You would immediately know that to lift a (p. 30) heavy weight, you have to start practicing with lighter weights and eventually work your way up to the heavier ones. It’s exactly the same with training your mind. The “200-pound weight” of mindfulness practice is that moment when you are so anxious or angry that you feel overwhelmed by your feelings. It takes a lot of mind training to work your way up to lifting that kind of emotional weight. That’s why we begin with 10 minutes a day in relatively calm situations. As you practice with these “lighter weights” you gradually get better and better at focusing your mind, paying attention to your thoughts and feelings and accepting them as they are as you let go of all judgments; your mindfulness “muscle” gets stronger. You become more able to respond skillfully to a stressful situation rather than just react automatically.
After sharing this analogy, you could go back to Chandra and suggest that she start her mind training with a very light weight. What about trying to sit quietly and count 10 breaths? If she does that 10 times during the day (setting her phone to remind her), she’ll have completed her mindfulness homework for the day. Gradually, she should find that she can sit for longer periods, working her way up to at least 10 minutes at a time.
By problem-solving, using metaphors and analogies, and sharing examples of what has worked for other students, the teacher illuminates the concrete benefits of mindfulness practice and leads the students around any obstacles they encounter. This, in turn, leads to more motivation; and maintaining motivation is absolutely necessary.
Stories, Not Lectures, Keep Them Engaged
Using stories as learning tools is one way in which our model adheres to more traditional methods for teaching meditation. Throughout history, metaphors, stories, and parables have been the bedrock of teaching in the meditative traditions. Anyone who has spent time learning and practicing meditation will have heard the same stories, or variations of the stories, that we use when we teach. Our stories are not new, but they are the ones that we find useful in teaching emerging adults. At the same time, any number of stories and metaphors are likely to be useful, and you are encouraged to try out your favorite ones. What’s important here is to avoid lecturing to the students and to make sure the stories you use resonate with the cultural perspective and developmental stage of your students. For example, most young people are not that inspired by hearing how mindfulness helps old people overcome illness and pain! But if you have a good story about mindfulness helping with academic success or romance, you will catch their attention. Sharing stories and telling tales is the best way to interest them and illustrate the complexities and paradoxes of mindfulness.
Two of the metaphors we use have already been described. In the previous section, we discussed building the “mindfulness muscle” by practicing with light emotional weights. In Chapter 2, we talked about clearing the choppy ponds of our busy minds. Because students often express frustration with the busy-ness of their minds, we have (p. 31) other metaphors that we regularly use in addressing this problem. For example, we talk about the thoughts moving through the mind like a rushing, roaring river. The river is always moving, and the thoughts are always rushing along. Mindfulness is the skill that allows the student to sit on the bank and watch the thoughts rather than be in the river, carried away by the thoughts. We often say,
At first, you’ll find that you climb onto the bank and then fall right back into the river. Climb onto the bank, fall back into the river, over and over. Practicing mindfulness of your thoughts is actually just being willing to climb out of the river, over and over. Every time you turn your attention to the present moment and notice what you are thinking, you have just climbed out of the river. “Staying on the bank” is noticing the next thought instead of getting caught up in the story of the first one. If you stick with the process, you will eventually notice that you start to sit on the bank a bit longer, and the river may actually begin to slow down. As this starts to happen, you’ll really get a feel for the difference between sitting on the bank and watching the thoughts go by versus being in the middle of the river, washed away by the thoughts.
Another useful metaphor illustrates the difference between observing mind and thinking mind by comparing thinking mind to a hyperactive puppy. Thinking mind is what our mind is doing most of the time: planning, comparing, judging, making decisions, or worrying. Observing mind kicks in when we begin to develop awareness of our thoughts and feelings as they arise. Observing mind is curious and relaxed, helping us to develop a broader perspective on our mental activity. With mindfulness, we are cultivating and strengthening observing mind while quieting thinking mind. To help students better understand these two states of mind, thinking mind can be characterized as a busy puppy that is always running around, bouncing off the walls, jumping from one activity to the next. Observing mind doesn’t have a chance to gain some control until thinking mind settles down a bit.
This metaphor often comes up when we are teaching the students to use gathas. Gathas are short mindfulness poems; their use is explained more fully in Chapter 7. Essentially, they are tools that can be used to help anchor the attention in the present moment. When you use a gatha, it’s like tossing your puppy, your thinking mind, a bone. The puppy settles down, stays in one place for a bit, and gnaws on the bone, anchoring your thoughts in the present moment, allowing observing mind to flourish.
As we noted in the previous section, stories about other students’ experiences can be very engaging. Stories from the teacher’s life can also be helpful. Here’s one that we sometimes use to illustrate the way our thoughts can influence our mood and create unnecessary stress:
Often, at the end of the day, I’m faced with cleaning the kitchen and doing the dishes before I can go to bed. Now, I’ve got a busy life. I work, I’ve got a small child to care for, a house to maintain, a big dog that needs walking, countless other chores, and usually by the end of the day, I’m pretty tired. But still, the dishes have to be done. If I pay attention, I’ll notice that I’m having thoughts like “Why do I have to do the dishes? It’s not fair. I always do the dishes. [This is false, by the way. My husband does them far more often than me, but when I’m grumpy and enjoying a little self-pity, often my thoughts aren’t so picky about the truth.] I have to do everything around here. I’m too tired, and I hate doing this anyway.” You can imagine what this does to my mood: I end up very grumpy and irritable. If I notice these thoughts and make a choice to become mindful, that is, to shift my attention to the sensations of my present-moment experience, then the scene changes dramatically. Instead of being lost in negative thoughts, I notice the pleasant feel of the warm water, the smell of the soap, the light on the bubbles, the satisfying clink of the dishes as they go into the dishwasher, and the movement of my arm as I wipe down the counters. I might hum a soothing melody to myself to keep my thinking mind a little quiet. I discover that, actually, washing dishes is not hard or even unpleasant when I stay present and pay attention. The task gets done regardless, but how I feel while I’m doing it and when I’m finished is vastly different if I do the task mindfully.
Even though the students don’t necessarily have exactly the same issue in their lives, they can still relate to the unpleasant feelings that arise when they are doing something they dislike. Dishwashing is an act commonly used by meditation teachers to demonstrate the way mindfulness can change our perceptions; this personal example helps students see that shifting their attention to the present moment can give them relief from negative thought patterns that affect their mood.
Characteristic Student Attitudes and Strategies for Working with Them
Our last set of strategies has been developed in response to specific attitudes and perspectives that we hear repeatedly from our students. In this section, we describe these characteristic attitudes and share our ideas for working with them.
Skeptical but Open to Change
“Overall, a really helpful experience and unexpectedly so.” This quote was taken from a student evaluation at the end of one of our classes. It captures perfectly the skepticism and openness that are so wonderfully intermingled in emerging adults. The students often bring to the class a fair amount of doubt about this whole meditation business. They are (p. 33) easily put off by anything that’s too “new-agey” or “touchy-feely.” They’re ready to reject new ideas if they are too weird or too different from their own culture. But at the same time, they are very flexible about suspending their doubts in the interest of trying something new. Because emerging adults are so open to exploration, they are rarely completely stuck in their own ways. They are surprisingly willing to try out new ideas, even when they are skeptical. Working with this combination of skepticism and openness requires careful attention to language, making sure that students can relate to the examples and stories used in the class.
One way we work with the students’ skepticism is to spend a little time reviewing some of the scientific research on the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. Students tend to have an academic orientation. They will often be reassured to learn that scientists have spent a fair amount of time asking the same questions they are asking and have found some clear benefits of investing time in mindfulness practice. Often, the opportunity to talk a little about the science behind the work will arise in response to a student’s question. For example, one of our graduate students, Ashok, asked if there was any evidence that meditation could help him feel calmer. This gave us the opportunity to talk with him about some of the studies that show decreased levels of stress in subjects who have practiced meditation. In Chapter 4 we review some of the mindfulness and meditation research that may be most salient to emerging adults. You will find that a basic knowledge of this information is helpful in addressing students’ skepticism when it arises.
Another useful way for teachers to address skepticism is to describe their own experiences. Anyone who tries to learn the rather difficult and sometimes boring practice of mindfulness meditation is going to have some doubts. We have found that sharing our own experiences of both doubt and progress provides a model for the students when they have similar challenges. For example, Holly likes to recount her own struggles with restlessness and doubt by relating the following story:
When I first started trying to meditate, it was very hard for me to sit still. I felt so restless. I remember the first time I attended a meditation group. I was shocked when I learned that we were all going to sit in silent meditation for 30 minutes, take a short break, and then sit for another 30 minutes. An hour of meditation! That seemed impossible to me. I couldn’t believe the other people in the group seemed to think this was a good idea. I remember feeling like time was going so slowly, that the person in charge of the clock had certainly fallen asleep, and that I was being tortured and it was all a big waste of time. I started making judgments about the other meditators, wondering if they were all deranged! But I remembered the admonitions to reserve judgment, be patient, and see for myself, and I managed to stick with it, even returning to that same group. Before long, it became clear to me that things were starting to change. I was feeling more peaceful, and my life was getting easier as I learned to release my judgments and focus my attention on the present moment. After a while, the positive (p. 34) changes I was experiencing in my own life became my source of motivation for continued practice, and here I am, years later, still practicing and still feeling the transformation that it has wrought for me. Believe it or not, I still go to that same meditation group! Your experience, of course, may be different, but we invite you to reserve judgment, be patient, and see what happens as you devote yourself for the next few weeks to the daily practice of mindfulness.
Finally, one of the most effective methods for dealing with skepticism is to address it directly, by noting it, and then invite the students to stay curious, keep their minds open, and see what happens. For example, when you introduce dynamic breathing or the gathas, some students may express some skepticism. We recommend acknowledging that these practices do sound a little strange but that other students have found them helpful. Then encourage the students to keep an open mind as they try them. Remember, mindfulness is all about staying present, with an attitude of curiosity toward whatever the present moment brings.
Not So Accepting of Acceptance
There are important aspects of mindfulness that must be communicated to the students: acceptance, nonstriving, nonjudging, and patience, to name a few. Students resist a little when they are first introduced to these ideas. The idea of accepting things as they are is particularly uncomfortable to persons in this age group. Remember, this is the age of exploration, striving, seeking, and change; telling emerging adults that the best way to manage their stressful challenges is to sit quietly and do nothing can seem completely alien to them. In particular, students who are engaged in social action or fighting for social justice may struggle to understand how acceptance can actually help them continue to work for the causes they care so deeply about.
This brings us to one of the first paradoxes that we have to address in mindfulness training: the first goal is to let go of all goals. So, although we acknowledge that academic excellence, for example, is an important goal, achieving that goal involves letting go of the idea of being the perfect student. Instead, we teach the students to stay present, attend to their work as best they can, and see what emerges. Students don’t usually take to this concept at first. Eventually, with great perseverance on your part, the students will come to appreciate this paradox as an important piece of the beauty and brilliance of mindfulness.
Here is another paradox, or actually the same paradox, just stated a little differently: nonstriving is the only way to get what you want. When we are anxious or feel unhappy, we believe with all our hearts that if we could only change x, y, and z, we would be happy. Mindfulness theory and practice teach us the opposite: we will only achieve happiness when we stop feeling attached to the idea that x, y, and z need to change.
In mindfulness parlance, this is known as acceptance. Students resist the idea of acceptance when they first hear about it and will often argue about its validity. One articulate and persuasive young man pointed out that the Nazis would have taken over the (p. 35) world if everyone had practiced acceptance. Of course, if the Nazis had been practicing acceptance, they wouldn’t have felt compelled to pursue genocide and world domination. That point aside, when students react against the idea of acceptance, it is usually because they are confusing it with what Eckhart Tolle refers to in his best-selling book The Power of Now (Tolle, 1999) as passive resignation, a state of indifference and hopelessness that is very uncomfortable to them. It is important to be well armed with stories and examples of acceptance that clearly differentiate true acceptance from passive resignation because you won’t get anywhere with emerging adults until they are clear on this point. There is an entire chapter in the text for the class, The Mindful Twenty-Something (Rogers, 2016), devoted to explaining acceptance.
Acceptance is a very active state. Acceptance is not the thought, “Oh, well, there’s nothing I can do about it. I’ll just have to accept things the way they are.” Acceptance is the thought, “Let me look deeply into this situation so that I understand the reality of it. From this place of clear-seeing, I can then choose with wisdom the best action for me to take.” Acceptance is the state of actively opening to the truth in the present moment. This act of seeing the truth of this moment is what leads to right action in the next moment. This aspect of acceptance is what can fuel effective social action as well as offer clarity for managing more personal dilemmas.
To convey this to the students, we suggest using examples from their academic or social life. Students can identify with being in a hopeless situation with regard to completing a project or assignment on time, so this can be a good topic to use to illustrate the difference between acceptance and passive resignation.
We might say the following to the students:
Let’s say it is 3 a.m. and you still have 10 more pages to write of your 12-page paper that is due at 8 a.m. You’ve been working on it for hours and are completely stuck. For some reason, this particular paper is not coming together, and you have waited until the final hour to start working on it. In this situation, what would passive resignation look like? Starting to panic or cry, or perhaps to binge drink, not finishing the paper, and not doing anything else proactive. Denial, the completely nonmindful approach, might lead you to stay up working relentlessly until the deadline passed, leaving you exhausted and without a plan B.
If you were staying mindful and practicing acceptance, sometime around 3 a.m. you would clearly see the truth: that you were completely exhausted and not working effectively. You would see the emotions of fear, anger, and frustration arising, and you would understand them as unpleasant but normal reactions to being stuck in a truly aversive situation. You would recognize that you started the paper too late, but this recognition would be free of harsh judgment. You would just see, without judging, that it does indeed take you more than 12 hours to research and write a paper of this size: useful information for the next project. You would understand that it is no longer possible to produce a good-quality paper by (p. 36) the deadline. With this clear understanding, you could then choose appropriate action, considering various options. Perhaps turning in a very poor paper and getting a poor grade is better than submitting no paper at all. Perhaps sending an apologetic e-mail to your professor, promising to get the paper in as soon as possible, is a good solution. Perhaps asking to meet with your professor in person is an even better solution. Perhaps getting some sleep so that you can think more clearly about how to handle this situation in the morning is the best solution. Developing these alternatives and choosing wisely among them is not possible until you accept that your plan A, having a brilliant paper ready by the deadline, is not happening.
The social life of emerging adults is often a source of painful feelings that require some acceptance. Here’s an example that students can often identify with.
You have a tremendous crush on your best friend’s girlfriend, and she doesn’t know you exist. In passive resignation mode, you spend endless months secretly suffering from the pain of unrequited love, never making attempts at more realistic romantic attachments and perhaps letting the situation poison your relationship with your friend. In acceptance mode, you acknowledge without judgment the way it feels to be in love with someone who doesn’t share your feelings; it’s a pretty miserable feeling, but it is what it is. You see truly what your chances and choices are, and act in a way that is likely to create the least suffering for all. Only if you really recognize all the important variables in this situation, including your own values, can you act with wisdom.
Mindfulness practice shows us that we suffer when our thoughts and behaviors are focused on trying to achieve a certain outcome or believing we need things to be a certain way. Mindfulness teaches that, paradoxically, we can only create the kind of change we seek in our life when we develop acceptance of how things are right now. For students, often the change they want is to be finished with whatever task is creating stress at the moment. They frequently say that they will be happy as soon as they finish this paper—or this class, or this semester, or this year, or this degree program. This type of thinking, which pushes happiness into the future, is common; but emerging adults seem particularly drawn to it.
You can teach the students that a more mindful approach to developing less stress and more happiness in life is to simply shift their attention to the present moment. Instead of fantasizing about how good things will be in the future, they can bring their attention fully into the present moment. Boris shared his experience when he started putting this into action. He said, “I always feel so restless in math class that I can hardly stand to sit there. I spend the whole time just waiting for the class to be over and thinking about what I’ll do when I get out of there. So, this week, I switched to just really paying attention to (p. 37) what was going on in the class. Focusing on what the professor was saying and being open to what was going on in the class completely changed my experience. The class seemed to be over in no time, and I actually enjoyed it.” Boris is demonstrating what happened when he went from making the judgment that he could only be happy when his class was over to accepting that he would be in the class for a defined period of time. Once he developed this acceptance, he became willing to see what would happen if he shifted his attention from the future to the present moment. He discovered that his impatience and restlessness in class were due not to the class itself but rather to his mind’s persistent pull away from his present-moment experience. (See “Frequently Asked Questions” at the end of Chapter 6 for more ideas on working with the concept of acceptance.)
Feeling Pressed for Time
Students constantly tell us that they don’t have time to meditate. Their sense of a lack of time may be the biggest barrier to maintaining their commitment to do their mindfulness homework. They perceive themselves as being pushed to the limit by a multitude of competing responsibilities. The idea of making time for one more task seems absurd, if not completely impossible. Yet, they have signed up and shown up for this class because they know that what they have been doing is not working for them. They are willing to try to make the time for something new, but at the same time, they can’t imagine how they will do that.
Students are masters of technology and adept at multitasking. Research on attention and multitasking shows that the brain doesn’t focus attention on more than one thing at a time; instead, it rapidly shifts attention between tasks (Ophir, Nass, & Wagner, 2009). Rather than increasing efficiency, these rapid shifts in attention can decrease efficiency (Marois, 2006). Worse for students, multitasking can actually impede the learning process. Students haven’t gotten this message at all. They have the misimpression that multitasking is the only answer to their perceived shortage of time, and they have usually tried to deal with the problem by switching their attention at an increasingly frenetic pace from one idea or task to the next.
Mindfulness is anti-multitasking. By teaching mindfulness, we are trying to break the students’ addiction to multitasking. Mindfulness is about steadying your attention, holding it constant, observing without judging or trying to change each moment as it arises. Surprisingly, when you start to pay attention, the perception of how much time you have begins to change.
Expressing her trouble with finding time to meditate, Manuela said, “I really mean to do my meditation practice each day, but I keep running out of time. I mean, I literally have no time. I hardly even go out with my friends anymore, and I just feel pressured all the time. I know it sounds stupid, but I can’t seem to make those 10 minutes a day happen.” In helping students find the time to meditate, we tend to use two approaches at the same time: a practical approach similar to the one we use to address any other (p. 38) obstacle and a philosophical approach to challenge the way they think about the time that they have.
In using the practical approach, you could work with Manuela’s time pressure in the same way you work with other obstacles encountered by students. Start by expressing empathy about how busy and pressured her life feels. Then problem-solve and help her look for some of the natural spaces in her day, patches of time that may go unnoticed or feel otherwise wasted. Ask her, “How do you get to school each day?” “What time do you get up?” “How much time is there between your classes?” “Are there a few minutes in the middle of the day that you can use to meditate?” “What about right before you go to sleep?” Often, these kinds of questions help the students formulate a strategy for finding those extra 10 minutes.
Perhaps the largest time-sink for students is the powerful pull of their electronic devices. Students are spending hours and hours on their phones and other screens, and we all know how easy it is to get drawn into these devices for longer than we intend. It can be helpful to talk with students about how they are managing their screen time. You can begin by simply asking them if they are happy with the amount of time they spend on their devices. If students acknowledge they would like to have greater control over their screen time, you can problem-solve about how to do this together. Often, the 10 minutes needed for meditation practice can be harvested from excess screen time.
In addition to addressing some of these practical problems, we like to question students about what time means to them. Students tend to respond well to these philosophical discussions about time. For example, you might ask, “What does it mean that you don’t have enough time? You’ve got the time that you’ve got—the same time that we’ve all got. The real question is, how do you want to spend it—worrying and feeling stressed or breathing mindfully while you sit on the quad between classes?” Ask the students to try to notice if the way they think about time and the tasks they must accomplish affects how they feel about the time that they have.
Sometimes we tell the story about our student, Leon, who discovered, after a period of feeling that he didn’t have time to meditate, that he actually spent a lot of his time waiting: waiting for class to start, waiting for friends to meet him, waiting in line at the store, waiting for the light to turn green, even waiting for a class to end. He noticed that if he thought of this time as “waiting,” he felt impatient, as though his time was being wasted. He became very curious about the difference between waiting for something to happen or change and just observing what was happening or changing. He discovered that if he perceived his waiting times as opportunities to get his meditation homework done, he could really relax into these free minutes, using the time to practice mindfulness. By making this simple shift in perception, his experience of time pressure changed dramatically. This is often the first step toward finding the time to regularly practice mindfulness.
In talking about waiting, Margaret likes to tell her own story of how to manage waiting in airports and on long flights or even on buses or trains. Our students travel (p. 39) often—back and forth to home, to programs in other countries, and so on. Here’s what Margaret says:
How many of you have had to sit at gates or on planes for long periods of time and felt frustrated and impatient? Well, what a wonderful opportunity for practicing mindfulness! [Students almost always laugh.] I travel a lot and, having lived in different countries, have spent hundreds of hours waiting in various airports. When I finally learned about mindfulness, I began to use those hours for practice. Now, when I’m sitting in the airport, I often simply close my eyes and practice belly breathing. When I am on a long flight, I never look at my watch but spend much of the time meditating. And I’ve discovered how much quicker and more pleasant the flights have become!
Eager to Feel Less Anxious
Worry, stress, tension, and insomnia are the demons that most frequently bring students to our classes. Over and over, students tell us that they are coming to the class primarily because they feel overwhelmed by anxiety and stress. They report that because of their high anxiety level, they are having trouble sleeping, concentrating, completing important tasks, and feeling a sense of pleasure. Their level of distress is fairly high, and they are seeking relief. Learning acceptance of the stress in their lives involves helping the students develop mindfulness skills that allow them to tolerate and work with their feelings.
Often, by the time they get to the class, the students have tried unsuccessfully to find some way of calming themselves. They may be at the point of feeling that they just can’t take it anymore and need some rapid relief. For this reason, the first class is designed to give the students tools that can directly address their high level of anxiety.
In the first Koru class, we teach two breathing exercises: belly breathing, an exercise for activating the parasympathetic nervous system (more about that in Chapter 4) and thus calming the body, and dynamic breathing, an exercise for clearing the mind and releasing high levels of anxiety and tension. The class closes with a guided body scan. After practicing the two breathing exercises and being guided through the body scan, the students generally leave the class feeling significantly calmer than when they entered. This is yet another way to shore up motivation, but mostly it just honors the importance of helping them feel better. The students are often suffering when they enter that first class, and it is necessary to recognize and address their suffering.
Students’ anxiety is often expressed as constant worry and rumination. Their minds travel in obsessive circles as they think about past mistakes or feared future events. Their level of stress and physical discomfort increases the more their minds spin. Mindfulness meditation is particularly well suited to help students break these ruminative thought patterns. As you teach them to meditate, you teach them to release worries, focusing their minds instead on their present-moment experience. Each of the guided meditations we (p. 40) take the students through is designed to help them focus and calm their minds. These guided meditations are described in detail in Chapters 6 to 9, which are devoted to the specifics of each class. Another mindfulness skill we teach, guided imagery, also helps students focus their minds and calm their anxiety; this skill is discussed in Chapter 8.
The students are not the only ones with goals for the class; as teachers, we often articulate the goal of helping the students to find greater contentment and joy in their lives. Calming their anxiety is an important first step toward achieving that goal. And we sometimes mention that the class helps anchor and enrich our own mindfulness practices.
Now that we have reviewed the theory and strategies that we have used in developing our model, let us turn our attention to the science behind the work. Research on the benefits of stress management in general, and mindfulness in particular, is abundant. A fair amount of it is specifically focused on the emerging adult population. The next chapter reviews this research and its relevance to teaching mindfulness to emerging adults.