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Interview with Y4C Advisory Board member Dan Huston: bringing contemplative education to all settings, from preschool to higher education

Thursday, November 29, 2012

I recently had the good fortune of sitting in on one of Professor Dan Huston’s communication classes.  Upon arrival, I could feel the sense of trust Professor Huston and his students had established after just four weeks of classes.  They were beginning with their usual routine: discussing portions of students’ “Awareness Notebooks”–a journaling activity that encourages students to direct attention to present moment sensations, feelings and thoughts as they go about their daily life. “It’s amazing what focusing on our breathing can do!” – exclaims one student. Others shared more personal experiences, such as using awareness of physiological sensations to avoid an anxiety attack, or using mindfulness to help deal with a family member’s recent death. Dan’s students also say mindfulness allows them to experience a feeling of awe, for example, noticing the beautiful snow fall as if seeing it for the first time.

The Awareness Notebooks activity is part of the Communicating Mindfully curriculum Professor Huston has been developing and implementing over the last fifteen years, which infuses mindfulness into the standard communication course offered to students at NHTI, Concord’s Community College.  His unique approach includes mindfulness meditation, which is useful in all life situations and scientifically studied in research laboratories. In fact, Dan is one of these researchers, having co-authored a peer-reviewed paper, “Mechanisms of Mindfulness in Communication Training," on the results of a controlled study on his Communicating Mindfully curriculum.

During the class I observed, Dan and his students explored the cause-and-effect relationship between self-talk and communication behaviors. “What we say to ourselves has a big impact on how we communicate,” Dan points out, “but we’re not always aware of that inner monologue.  As we become more aware of it, one of the things we often notice is the contribution it makes to habitual patterns of communication that aren’t serving us very well.”  As his students begin to discover their unproductive habits, Dan invites them to consider the communication concepts they have studied to help them “think of alternatives to those habitual behaviors that manufacture our reality.”  Opening to the moment more fully can help, too, in order to avoid ruminating on unproductive thoughts.  His students know that opening to the moment means becoming more aware of both the pleasant and the unpleasant experiences in their lives.  “When we wake up to life, we wake up to both the smell of flowers and dead mice…But by making a commitment to experiencing even the unpleasant experiences of life, we make room for important observations and insights,” Dan notes in his textbook, Communicating Mindfully, which he created for the course.

At the end of the class, Dan leads students through an optional 15-minute Loving-Kindness Meditation.  All of the students choose to participate. Completely secular, this practice is offered to all without assumptions or required postures. Some students decide to use their yoga mat to lie down, some are sitting at their desk with heads down on their hands, some are standing with eyes closed. This time is taken as an opportunity, not always present in students’ daily busy lives, to connect with their inner selves and generate the feelings of peace and compassion. Those are especially needed when we allow ourselves to notice things we don’t like about ourselves, which observation of our self-talk often reveals.

Dan has been incorporating mindfulness, meditation, and emotional intelligence into his communication curriculum for fifteen years. His work is informed by training he received at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn. In addition to fulfilling his teaching responsibilities as a Professor of the English Department, Dan works tirelessly to increase mindful communication throughout NHTI’s campus community: advising the student meditation club, providing training to faculty and administrators, leading workshops at the Business Training Center, and working to infuse mindfulness throughout a variety of curricula.

Serving on the Yoga 4 Classrooms Advisory Board, Dan Huston is inspired by the movement to bring the techniques of yoga and mindfulness to the younger generation in order to set the groundwork for a lifetime of learning through careful, mindful observation and mind/body awareness.

We met with him to ask a few questions about his vision for contemplative practices in education, encompassing the lifelong learning from preschool to higher education institutions.



Q: The field of contemplative education is slowly starting to gain grounds in traditional educational settings. A lot of programs focus on just one or two guiding philosophies or practices. Do you believe it is possible to create an integrative approach taking into account the concepts of Social-Emotional Learning, emotional intelligence, character education and mindfulness?
Dan Huston: 
That’s a good question.  Yes, I do believe it’s possible.  However, about ten years ago when I began going to conferences for educators who were bringing contemplative practices into their classrooms, I realized that people were often using the term “mindfulness” in very different ways.  One of the keynote speakers at one of those conferences, Amishi Jha, who studies the effects of mindfulness meditation on the brain, expressed concern about that phenomenon--at least that’s how I took it.  She pointed out that the field is in its infancy and that it’s important for educators and researchers to join forces and to be very specific about the application of contemplative practices and the outcomes.  At NHTI, I have provided training to over sixty full-time faculty members (some more than others).  We now have a common foundation on which we can build.  With that common understanding, common vocabulary, common experience, we are now beginning to explore a variety of contemplative practices.  Teachers from a wide range of disciplines have studied mindfulness with me.  Those disciplines include literature, human services, information technology, math, biology, dental, nursing, and orthopedics.  I am very excited to see where things go from here, and I’m encouraged by how thoughtfully and deliberately people are moving forward with their ideas.  I suspect Y4C is establishing a similar kind of foundation in the schools with which you work.

Q: Generating compassion, empathic concern for others and subsequent prosocial behavior is an ongoing theme in contemporary school settings (especially in light of bullying prevention). How do you see self-communication skills such as self-awareness and emotional competence being related to improving interpersonal communication abilities?

Dan Huston:
That’s another great question.  The answer could fill up an entire book…as a matter of fact, that’s pretty much what my book is about.  However, I will emphasize how useful Paul Ekman’s work has been to me.  He states very clearly that human beings interpret situations so quickly we don’t even notice it’s an interpretation: it feels like we’re simply noticing “reality.”  However, as we all know, our perceptions aren’t always accurate.  Nevertheless, accurate or not, they can stir strong emotions within us, and we can often be very reactive, irrational, self-righteous, judgmental…the list goes on and on.  Ekman points out that mindfulness can help us notice emotions arising in our body—quick heart rate, tense muscles, etc.  When we feel those things happening, it might be an indication we’re about to be reactive based on the way we unconsciously interpreted something.  That’s our opportunity to reappraise what just happened and make a choice about how to respond.  When we respond with that kind of awareness, we can ask ourselves, “What could I say or do right now that has the best chance of making this experience satisfying for everyone involved?”  I believe that reappraisal process helps us develop self-awareness, flexibility, self-regulation, resilience, and empathy, all of which help us communicate more effectively.  We begin to realize that each of us interprets situations differently—we each have a different set of experiences that influence how we appraise situations.  When we get to know ourselves at that level, observing our emotions and reactivity, we develop the ability to empathize with others at a deeper level as well.  Consequently, we speak with more respect, we listen better, we choose our words more carefully, and we are less judgmental.

Q: What has been the most often mentioned benefit of mindfulness among your students?

Dan Huston: “Most often?” That’s hard to answer.  Students frequently say the course helps them succeed in college in general.  Surprisingly, many students have mentioned that it helps them with math.  I think part of what’s happening there is that applying mindfulness to the study of self-concept helps them recognize self-fulfilling prophecies that have been holding them back; they learn to focus on the math problem itself rather than being engulfed by panic.  They also discover and modify unproductive habits when it comes to doing (or not doing) homework in general.  Students comment on how the class has helped improve their relationships with family members, friends, boyfriends/girlfriends, etc.  They realize they have the ability to manage life’s challenges; they’re less afraid and more confident. It’s not uncommon for students to say the course helped them manage their ADHD or stop abusing alcohol and drugs.  Oh, and many younger students become nicer to their moms, too.

Q: What do you think is the key difference in teaching mindfulness skills to children versus young adults? Where does the physical aspect of mindful yoga, or the embodiment of mindfulness skills, as in Yoga 4 Classrooms curriculum, fit in?

Dan Huston: As you know, I don’t have experience working with young children.  I can tell you, however, that many of my students express that they wish they had been introduced to mindfulness at an earlier age.  “Why didn’t anyone tell me this before?” is a common sentiment expressed in my classes.  I have a bit of experience with yoga, though, and it certainly can nurture mindfulness: “stretching” to one’s limit becomes a kind of metaphor for growing naturally, at one’s own pace by virtue of dedication and commitment; “sitting with discomfort” teaches us that being uncomfortable from time to time is part of life—we don’t have to run away from it; and yoga can help us notice our self-talk and emotions, too: “I’ll never be able to do that!” we might say, tempted to compare ourselves to the person next to us, rather than recognizing our own limits and abilities.  It’s not about who can stretch the farthest; it’s about being present with and respecting our minds and our bodies.  I imagine children who gain that ability at an early age will be more confident in themselves, less likely to be persuaded to do things they don’t want to do, more in touch with their natural abilities, more aware of their interests, less reactive, and maybe more fully engaged in everything they do, more focused.

As a Yoga 4 Classrooms Advisory Board member, Dan Huston believes that introducing mindfulness, self-awareness and emotion regulation skills and strategies to young children helps them develop better self-care habits as they transition to adulthood.  It also helps them develop focused attention, confidence, and critical thinking skills.  We share the vision that modifying the techniques proven effective with adults to be developmentally appropriate for younger children and creating the learning environments conducive to contemplation, reflection and creativity early on in educational process are keys to making a profound change in the fabric of our society.

Learn more about Y4C Advisory Board members and stay tuned for more interviews with each of them.

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