Teaching Millennials the Power of Plugging Into Mindfulness

    by Aran Levasseur
    March 13, 2015
    Photo by José Feliciano Cerdeño on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.
    Click the image for the full series. Graphic by hyoin min and used here with Creative Commons license

    Click the image for the full series. Graphic by hyoin min and used here with Creative Commons license

    In our wired world it’s easy to extol the virtues of the web, mobile devices and social media. These time-bending technologies have generated previously unimaginable ways of searching, creating and sharing information instantaneously. Yet as our hours and days are filled with more and more time-saving devices, many of us seem to have less and less time. What is being lost in the process? As Gandhi reminds us, “There is more to life than increasing its speed.”

    "A raft of research has clearly highlighted how essential downtime and mindfulness are, and how they're increasingly becoming so in our always-on world."

    As a high school teacher I’ve noticed that most of the Millennial generation seems to have one reference point: hyper-speed. They were born in and conditioned by an always-on world, where instant gratification and quick fixes are baseline expectations. Patience is deemed old-fashioned — which is why they may have come of age as the most stressed generation.


    A raft of research has clearly highlighted how essential downtime and mindfulness are, and how they’re increasingly becoming so in our always-on world. As I wrote about in a previous article for MediaShift, moments of not-doing are critical for connecting and synthesizing new information, ideas and experiences. Moreover, mindfulness training has been proven to treat stress, depression and addiction. The challenge is in finding ways to introduce these countervailing practices that don’t elicit boredom and impressions of frivolousness.

    This semester I have been teaching an elective on Zen Buddhism to seniors, which has provided an ideal opportunity for experimenting with ways of introducing mindfulness. Zen is a school of Buddhism that developed in China. According to legend, the Buddhist monk, Bodhidharma, brought Buddhism from India to China, where it mixed with Taoism and became known as Chan. The word Zen is derived from the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word Chan, which in turn is derived from the Sanskrit word dhyana. Dhyana can be approximately translated as “meditative state.”

    Photo by John Williams on Flickr used here with Creative Commons license.

    Photo by John Williams on Flickr used here with Creative Commons license.


    Hitting the limit at 5 minutes

    At the heart of Zen is the practice of zazen, or sitting meditation. The aim of zazen is just sitting and bringing non-judgmental awareness to all that is arising: thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, and external stimulus. This kind of open awareness, or mindfulness, is the source of our most creative thoughts and has the remarkable quality of decreasing stress and increasing happiness. However, witnessing things as they are, without the distorting perspective of our habits and opinions, is an elusive form of awareness in our culture. I found that five minutes of just sitting is the limit my students can practice before boredom and distraction eclipse their attention. Therefore, as a class, we are investigating other mindfulness practices that appear to cultivate this quality of awareness more naturally.

    Zen principles can be found in a range of art forms, such as haiku, landscape painting, the tea ceremony, rock gardening and calligraphy. These art forms are not only designed to cultivate mindfulness, but also aim to draw one’s awareness to the nature of reality. These arts are characterized by the wabi-sabi aesthetic. Wabi-sabi, in writer Leonard Koren’s words, “is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.” These truths become self-evident by observing nature. And nature serves as either the content or medium itself in these Zen arts. These aesthetic qualities of natural process and acceptance of reality are rooted in Taoism, which is where we started.

    In the seeming chaos of the universe the ancient Chinese described a dynamic order in nature. Their term for this emergent order is Li, which we can find in the patterns of ice crystals, clouds, tree rings and moving water. These patterns can be easily seen, and we started by venturing outside and sketching patterns that captured our attention. The intention behind sketching was not to showcase our drawings, but to help us see more clearly and in greater detail. After 20 to 30 minutes of observing and sketching the peace and stillness in nature, we noticed this process produced a peace and stillness within. At the same time, the stress and anxiety that so often stalks high school students, melted away. Many observed how insubstantial their issues and challenges appeared from this newfound perspective. As importantly, an upwelling calm shed experiential light on the wisdom of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.”

    Beyond Striving

    While all students experienced how sketching patterns in nature can cultivate mindfulness, some found the practice too challenging or boring — and therefore a practice they would unlikely cultivate outside of class. Taking photographs of Li proved to be more effortless for some students, yet it produced the same desired results: sustained mindfulness. There is a prevailing belief in Western culture that discipline, rationality and great effort are essential ingredients to accomplishing anything. However, for early Chinese philosophers a major goal was to get beyond striving. This goal revolves around the concept of Wu Wei, which literally translates as “no trying” or “no doing,” but might be rendered more effectively into English as effortless action. It’s similar to the being in the zone or in a flow state.

    Effortless action abounds in nature: the growth of trees, flight of birds and flow of rivers. The next assignment as a class was to observe Wu Wei in nature and sketch, photograph or video effortless action manifesting. Afterwards we all discussed why effortless action is so pervasive in nature but fleeting in human societies. The desire for control and the discontent with uncertainty in human societies emerged as probable causes. With the intention to mindfully question those impulses, we turned to the art of Andy Goldsworthy.

    Andy Goldsworthy creates art using the materials he finds in nature: stones, leafs, ice, flowers, driftwood. As a result, his pieces emphasize impermanence as they eventually collapse, wash way, melt or otherwise change. The mission of his art is to understand the processes of nature: time, growth, change, balance, flow.

    After watching the documentary, Rivers and Tides, which chronicles Goldsworthy’s creative process, we discussed the correlations between Taoist concepts and his art. The next step was to create environmental art in the spirit of Goldsworthy and Taoism. The goal was for a theme such as balance or flow to emerge from the synergy of chosen materials and observation of the environment. Subsequently we all reflected on whether the artistic process instilled those qualities. Most of us said it did.

    Photo by William Warby on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Photo by William Warby on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Overall, the students in my class said they appreciate the mindfulness practices we’ve been experimenting with. When asked if they are likely to adopt any of these practices after the class ends, they told me the key is to connect with a method that resonates with them personally. They emphasized how mindfulness practice, especially when done in nature, provides such a stark contrast to their always-on lifestyle. As the digital age continues to colonize the furthest reaches of our lives, the challenge we face was best articulated by Lao Tzu 2,500 years ago: “Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?”

    Aran Levasseur has taught Outdoor Education, World History, Science, designed an iPad program, and given a talk at TEDxSFED on videogames and learning. He currently teaches Global Studies and Philosophy at San Domenico School. You can follow him @fusionjones on Twitter.

    Tagged: high school meditation mindfulness unplugging unplugging 2015 zazen zen buddhism

    19 responses to “Teaching Millennials the Power of Plugging Into Mindfulness”

    1. ExpatEUTherapist says:

      I have worked with many business clients for years and have taught all of them mindfulness meditation. I have found that the practice of mindfulness meditation makes them more open and able to innovate far better than before they began their mindfulness practices. Often it is helpful to have some guidance or a teacher when beginning to do meditation. When a teacher is not available or possible I highly recommend the guided meditation training downloads by Jon Shore at http://www.meditation-download.com to most of my clients since they are very effective.

      One can argue all day about the effectiveness of meditation or mindfulness or one can try it and see for oneself. I usually recommend the second option.

    2. ellegitimate says:

      I think it’s important that when this is taught that the point is not that it helps you achieve better, but that it makes you more satisfied with your life and that the constant striving is a recipe for life-long misery.

      These are people raised under the contant limelight that is social media – the constant reputation management that goes on. I think this makes it especially important for us to be able to pull back into ourselves. To be in-sync with ourselves, rather than having to show the world how great we are all the time.

    3. Yidian Dong says:

      I must admit that I am not a person who likes walking into nature very much. It tends become bored to me some time. But in this class, I’ve learnt a lot from nature and now I prefer to be outside instead of staying in the room. Internet has brought us much convenience. But the peace brought by nature can’t be replaced.

    4. Ashley Mulshenock says:

      I realized how much I am a product of my society. I want an instantaneous result and response to everything, and I become very restless and angry if I don’t get it. In this class I learned a lot about how to better my life. I now know how to be patient, and go with the flow. Meditation has also been key in centering myself, and being aware.

    5. Mirah Ray says:

      I think that yes, as students, we are more prone to fall into bordeom and distraction but I think we have more potential to reach the investigation of mindfulness. We are so use to (in this day in age) technology and modernness all around us that it’s so much more of a challenge for our generation, but I think that even reaching a taste of mindfulness is a success because it shows how strong we are. Practice makes progess!

    6. Elyzah says:

      As a student, It is really nice to be in a classroom setting where you are encouraged to think about your mental health and physical being before thinking about how much homework you have to do or what tests you have that week. This class has allowed me to step outside of the “typical classroom” and broaden my horizons by taking pictures, nature sketches, and doing iMovies.

    7. Shea Rounds says:

      Participating in this class has taught me many new ways to find peace and release stress. I have learned to value the natural world and take the time to step away from electronics and venture outside. Now before I begin studying I try to step outside and take at least five minutes to close my eyes and relax, this ultimately has helped give me a sense of relaxation and focus.

    8. Rachele says:

      As a part of the class, I see a huge change in me from the beginning of the semester (January) to now. It is true that I could only sit for five minutes before boredom came over me. However three months later, after practicing mindfulness through Andy Goldsworthy art, Li, and Wu-Wei activities, I can honestly sit or walk in nature for 15-20 minutes now. It may not seem like a long time, but I believe that mindfulness is a practice that takes time and patience to learn. It is essential for a person to relax and learn from nature itself.

    9. Emily Datnow says:

      I have become a lot more aware of my actions in everyday life and intents altogether. Through this class, we have learned about awareness and that it is healthy sometimes to sit, breathe, and do nothing. I feel like this is different than what we are usually taught in other classes. We are taught to always be doing work or studying or getting ahead in our assignments, while in this class, we are able to realize that doing nothing and just thinking about our lives is okay.

    10. Lucia says:

      I’ve always been very introverted, and consequently introspective. As a result, I’ve always had an idea of what resonated as true to me, but it was always mixed up in bits and pieces, like a puzzle. Coming into this class, and perhaps even a little bit before, has helped me to glue these ideas floating around in my head and make more sense of them. Though it is a daily struggle, I am better equipped to be able to slow down and breathe because I under why I should rather than someone simply telling me to.

    11. Jacqueline Grubb says:

      I agree with the fact that my generation is so focused on running on schedule without really having the time to relax and take a quick break. This class has taught me that it is important to take time to relax and collect our thoughts before moving on again, and when we do take a break, to take a break outside and really let nature surround us and let go of all the worries and pent up feelings and to take the time to really enjoy and connect to what’s around us and to break from the stress and anger in life every once on a while, even if it’s for a few minutes in silence.

    12. Ioulia says:

      This class has helped me a lot while dealing with my everyday problems, this is one of the reasons why I consider this class very valuable. Learning about mindfulness and the different religions that practice it is very important, because learning the results of this practices make me want to practice them to. This is what this wonderful class is about, not only learning about this religions and cultures but also practicing them.
      This class makes you connect with nature and the people around you in the best possible way.

    13. Yilin (Yumi) Zhang says:

      I really like our class. This class let me feel close to the nature. Because of this class I understand myself more and I learned many ways to keep calm. When we outside the class, when we in the nature, it’s usually help me to think more deeper.

    14. Nicole Semanick says:

      Being in this class has helped me a lot with the depression I had and the anxiety I battle by helping me discover myself more and get to know my personality and so I feel a lot of truth in what you’ve wrote; this sums our class up well. I consider finding peace and happiness in yourself is a personal experience and a personal discovery and while sketching works for some, meditating works for others. It can only be truly achieved if we let ourselves be loving and most importantly be loved and forgive ourselves.

    15. Maddie Murphy says:

      I was brought up in a family that always appreciated nature and its beautiful, effortless flow but ever since I’ve enrolled in this class, I’ve been introduced to various new ways of looking at nature and seeing it through a different lense. I really appreciate all of the insight that Mr. Levasseur has taught us these past two semesters, and I wish I could continue this course in college.

    16. Jiawei (Shirley) Li says:

      Siting in a classroom and following the teacher’s instruction had became a habit of mine. However, sometimes it limits my ideas. In this class, I started to think what is truing like rather than what I should learn. I tented to put more effort into projects that we made over the past and not only focusing on the grade we will get. And I also really like the meditation at the beginning of class.

    17. Aminat Oladunjoye says:

      With every generation there will be something that the previous generation did not have. For my parents generation they did not have computers and cell phones so to them my peers and I are spoiled with technology. Something will probably be made when I have my kids that will change the way people interact with each other. I think advancement in technology is always good but when new things come out people need to be able to take them in with consideration.

    18. Annabelle Kronik says:

      As a student of the author, I can say that these mindfulness meditations have greatly helped me find inner tranquility amidst the chaos that is senior year. I was hesitant at first because, as a millennial that is constantly bombarded with stimuli, simply sitting doing nothing intimidates me. Fortunately, Mr. L’s gentle approach slowly eased us into it via numerous different techniques such as finding patterns of Li, drawing meditation, scavenger hunts, and more. By being presented with so many paths to mindfulness, Mr. L allowed us to find the way that works for each of us individually. It’s been a great, helpful experience that I plan to continue after this class is over.

    19. Tricia Barker says:

      I love this article and plan to link it on my blog post about mindfulness for millennials. I have been teaching this group for years, and I believe mindfulness will help them in numerous ways. Here is the post I linked to your post. Years ago, I taught mindfulness in a conservative school district and the parents freaked out and gave me tons of Bibles. It was sad because the practice helped so many junior high students with emotional issues. It gave them peace to concentrate on their reading and be more successful in school. Now I teach at a community college and that isn’t an issues. Here’s my post if you are interested. https://triciabarkernde.com/2016/09/11/mindfulness-for-millennials-five-basic-tips/

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