The soil for cultivating mindfulness

Before finishing the reading of this week, I thought I was among the minority that suffers from focus problems. Sometimes I stared at the same sentence over and over without knowing what it was about. Sometimes when I was listening to people talking, although I heard every word clearly, it just did not make any sense when put together. I was told by both my middle school teachers and high school teachers that I had two modes during the classes. In one mode, I was fully engaged; while in the other one, I was totally offline. It was difficult for me as a young student to figure out why I could have two opposite modes. The teachers gave me no clue on why and how to avoid the offline moments. They just told me to be more focused. Probably even they had not heard of “mindfulness” at that time. Anyway, the concentration problem has been with me for a long time. One day, I started searching for “why people feel sleepy when they are learning”. One person wrote that it could be that the rate of information transfer (to understand or to make sense) is too low. This reminded me that concentration is about the content, e.g. the current flow of information during a reading activity, rather than the behavior of reading. It resonates with what Langer said to focus on the current and contextual learning environment. For example, reading is not a repeated activity of looking at each character and each page mechanically. It is actually a dynamic process of mapping the information to our existing understanding or to make new senses. Getting this point, I don’t believe I have any concentration problems or feel anxious about it. When things are difficult to receive, just approach it with an open mind and test out different ways. This is the learner’s perspective.

It is interesting that the readings of this week have reminded me of so many difficult times as a learner, yet I have never reflected on many of them until today. Such a typical feature of mindlessness.

From a teacher’s perspective, cooking is so difficult for me when I was a teenager living with my parents. My dad used to teach me several times how to cook in a way that was very unpleasant for me. He would first tell me “you do the first, the second, the third.. and ta-da, it is done!”. Then he would let me repeat the steps from cutting the ingredients to cooking it in a pot. I did not know about cooking at all and I did not know it required a lot of experiences to decide when to do what and how much seasoning to be added. I was very cumbersome at each step but it was fun and ok for me. Then my dad would keep hasten me to do the next step because otherwise, I could burn the food or the food would be too soft to eat. If I did not follow his instructions immediately or correctly, he would just take over the kitchen and save his perfect masterpiece. Therefore, I never really got to complete a dish by myself. The experience of not being allowed to take time to think or to explore it at my speed was very depressing. After several trials with him, I didn’t have any interest in cooking at all and I rejected cooking anything even not boiling a pot of water. I revisited cooking only after I got married. My husband gave me more space on trying out things and fail things. He taught me how to cook very patiently, answered all my stupid questions, let me improvise, and responded to every change I made to the dishes. Cooking is fun again! Now if I look back to compare my experiences of learning to cook, my dad cared more about how the dish would come out, while I wanted the process to be more focused on me and on improving my understanding my skills. In this sense, maybe many students lose their motivation of learning just because they don’t feel at an authentic environment for learning. I believe students are by nature attracted to a mindful and playful state but they may not be so aware of their need. However, the teachers may take off all the space for the mind and fun and force the students to focus on the final “dishes” that is not that important for the learning process. In my understanding, the teachers should be more mindful of the students’ current status and their changes, not just push them to reach a pre-determined goal. Wrong education strategy not only misses the chance of fostering the mindful state of the students but also strangles their curiosity and passion.

My writing above is not that theoretical because the readings link to many of my previous learning experiences. I like how the author described mindfulness in such a clear and do-able way. I thought it could take years of meditation to pass mindfulness to learning and everyday life. Actually, it seems so easy to adopt. What takes years is to recognize the importance of a mindful state due to all the inertia of the mind and attempts to avoid discomfort and dissonance. Triggering students’ attention and thoughts by presenting controversial thoughts is kind of similar to how a drama engages audiences using the evolution of a conflict. The client-oriented industries, such as games and drama, have so many inspirations to offer to education.

Young students are too immature to get all these points on mindfulness, curiosity, and engagement by themselves. They are also too vulnerable to be limited to a single perspective and so fragile to get frustrated and lost interest due to the limitation added to their mind. It is not rare to hear a former student complaining that work is so different from what he/she has learned. Hopefully, if the future students could be educated differently, they will understand that they learn not just for work, take the difference in work for granted and get used to the constant evolution of their cognition.