Eight principles of heartful community among students

1. Foster mindfulness

My courses are based in the practice of mindfulness—the non-judgmental, moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. Each class begins with 15-20 minutes of mindful meditation, as not only does research suggest that it helps mitigate fears and anxieties but that it also encourages greater awareness of one’s self, of others, and of our interconnectedness. And recent studies suggest that even subtle experiences of social connectedness promote shared psychological and physiological states.

2. Honor vulnerability

A mindful approach helps students to embrace their own vulnerability and imperfection and honor the different levels of openness that each brings, knowing that being vulnerable depends on a sense of safety. Yvonne told me, “Some instructors proclaim, ‘This is a safe space,’ but just calling it safe doesn’t make it safe.” We look carefully and boldly at the curriculum and classroom dynamics for what is threatening and makes some students feel marginalized, invisible, excluded. While we make mistakes, we are open to dealing with them, accepting that it’s okay to be imperfect.

I take the lead in creating a safe space for vulnerability by presenting myself as both a teacher and learner, a guide further along the path, but one still seeking. This means that when I falter and wander, I share with them my feelings of vulnerability. I acknowledge the struggle for humility, “not knowing,” and embracing mystery over the need for mastery and certainty.

3. Model authenticity

We seek to understand the ever evolving “real me,” and present ourselves authentically, rather than performing in ways we have learned. I share my thoughts and feelings about who I am and why I am teaching the course, and ask them too to share, “Who are you and why are you here?” While fostering racial trust is not an explicitly stated goal, everyone is encouraged to bring forth an authentic self, which for students of color and others means parts of themselves that they feel are invisible elsewhere on campus and beyond.

While some faculty tell me that we should “leave ourselves at the door,” I seek to be an authentic teacher, bringing myself as a human being into the classroom. Sometimes I use performance, such as walking into the classroom dressed in a kimono, addressing the students in Japanese as a way of inducing mindfulness, showing vulnerability by acting outside norms, and modeling authenticity by revealing who I really am.

4. Practice listening

We invite others to tell us about their suffering and listen carefully, respecting the silence between words. Suspending judgment, projecting empathy and respect, helps the other to find voice and feel seen, appreciated for their contribution. When we disagree, we seek to understand how that person thinks and feels, enabling us to learn not only about their perceptions but also our own.

The skills of active listening are practiced to experience how empathy, imagination, and storytelling are ways to enter into another’s frame of mind. This way of listening can elicit and make a safe space for the kind of honest personal disclosures that promote closeness and positive feelings toward others—another research-supported way to reduce anxietyby moderating but not erasing group membership, as students recognize their peers’ individual characteristics and group identities.

5. Balance acceptance and change

We seek a balance of acceptance and change in ourselves and others. Instead of judging and trying to change ourselves and others, we provide the accepting space that paradoxically allows us to change. We confront the need to accept, and possibly even forgive, what has happened to us, struggling with the tensions of victim consciousness and agency, in addressing traumas and wounds—personal, historical, and collective.

An exercise in self-compassion enhances self-acceptance as well as understanding for others. Other exercises, using the Serenity Prayer or the Japanese saying shikata ga nai, help us balance the serenity to accept what we cannot change and the courage to change what we can, in our daily lives and in crisis. Gently and courageously, we move from thinking of ourselves as victims to recognizing our responsibility in creating solutions to the dilemmas we and others confront.

6. Cultivate compassion

Studies consistently suggest that we are more likely to feel compassionate concern for people with whom we feel a personal connection. So my class encourages ways of connecting with the concerns and suffering of others through understanding and empathy. Respecting individual differences, we position them within a broader, holistic context that emphasizes our commonalities. We acknowledge the we are all human, and also unique.

One simple exercise that we do in dyads is exploring what we have in common, inevitably leading to realizing unexpected connections. We cultivate respect in exercises such as greeting each other with the Zulu expression Sawubona, meaning “we see you.” Our storytelling approach allows us to recognize the ways in which we share common humanity, bridging communities, opening up to those outside our home, group, and nation, crossing borders of “us” and “them.”

7. Focus on gratitude and appreciation

A considerable body of research has documented the social and psychological benefits of gratitude, and we try to bring those findings into the classroom by searching for and seeing the good in ideas, people, and beliefs, and acknowledging the ways they have positively impacted our own lives.

One way we develop appreciation is through an exercise asking us to express what we appreciate about ourselves as humans rather than for our achievements. We also play a gift-giving game, expressing gratitude to others as we seek to build constructive unity between the diverse people in our group, each bringing forth and contributing their unique abilities, forsaking comparison and competition.

8. Take responsibility

By practicing mindfulness and other principles, we become more aware of and present to our fears and others’ fears, bearing witness as a way of healing and empowering. We see the spiritual path as intertwined with the path of social action, with contemplation and action parts of the same whole, each nourishing and guiding the other. Acknowledging that our well-being depends on others makes caring for others’ well-being a moral responsibility.

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