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Home arrow Sociology arrow Holistic engagement : transformative social work education in the 21st century
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UPDATE 1: MINDFULNESS

My next revision aimed to encourage reflection both inside and outside the classroom, to mobilize more of the person of the learner, and to introduce even more practice skills applicable to clients. The first change was designed to better engage the students by devoting more attention to the place of mindfulness in social work. The folder holding my notes on this was labeled “Mindfulness Justification,” revealing the sense of vulnerability I carried with me. Recent research supported the hypothesis that meditation can result in enduring beneficial changes in brain function outside the meditative state, especially in areas of emotional processing. I consolidated a related reading list for distribution and identified links for further information (see Desbordes et al., 2012; Massachusetts General Hospital, 2012; McCarthy, 2012; Raffone, Tagini, & Srinivasan, 2010; Tang et al., 2012; Zelazo & Lyons, 2012).

Mindfulness practice is a skill or activity that increases one's capacity for being present in the here and now. Again, we are talking about the intersection of the role and person, sometimes referred to as “the person of the practitioner.” To further justify the use of mindfulness in the classroom, I invoked the term “use of self,” a well-established arena of aptitude and self-awareness, as an umbrella under which mindfulness could be neatly placed. Mindfulness practice can benefit the clinician's inner life while enhancing direct work with clients. It may improve skills for self-soothing, tolerance of ambiguity, spontaneity, improvisation, and permit deep attunement to the client (Hart, 2008; Shapiro, Brown, & Astin, 2008). One is more present and free from distraction, including worrying about what to do next. Deep attunement with full presence actually increases the likelihood that something will come to us by creating a quiet space inviting our spontaneity and improvisation. This might result in reaching for latent emotional content or simply allowing the pain that has just been revealed without rushing to fix it. “How do I calm down and stay open to be present even if I don't know what to do?” Many students admit they do too much of the talking with clients. They think, “I must be doing something because words are coming out of my mouth.” I remind students that the WAIT acronym works well here: Why am I talking?

What changes in our lived experience as we build our capacity for mindfulness? The progression often reported by students, teachers, and therapists is syn- opsized next. Initially, an activating event triggers a strong emotional response within us. Before we know it, we become completely fused with our emotional experience. It is the only thing that is real or true (Walser & Westrup, 2006).

Early in the practice, an event may trigger the same emotional response. We are still reactive, yet there is a hint of awareness present. “Here I go again.” This is the embryo of our observer. With continued practice, our emotional response may still surface as our first inclination, but our observer consciousness shows up sooner and stronger, creating space for the possibility of a different choice (Spiegler & Guevremont, 2010).

Eventually, the entire dynamic and ratio shifts. The number of things that trigger us decreases, as does their potency. We may still get triggered, but our response will take place within a larger expanded observer consciousness. I finish by adding the following: “Mindfulness makes you a better practitioner with clients; at the same time, it makes you a better person.”

From here, I proceed to the experiential portion. We take an experiential dip with a meditation practice by entering the shallow end and remaining ankle deep. I distribute an instruction sheet adapted from Cher Huber, talk about posture, reassure them that intrusive thoughts are normal, and scale back expectation. We sit for just 2 minutes with the following instructions:

  • • Feel your body breathing. Feel the air enter your body, fill your body, and leave your body.
  • • Thoughts will arise and pass away. Feelings will arise and pass away. You may hear sounds, smell odors, see sights, feel sensations. Just notice them, resisting nothing, holding onto nothing, allowing everything to be as it is.

• Just sit—not trying to accomplish anything, not trying to change anything, especially yourself. Breathe in and breathe out.

I carefully ring the bells I brought from home. As the tone of the bells begins to fade, I think, “How long is it going to take before these things stop ringing and I can put them down?” “You're no master.” “You forgot to say a bunch of stuff.” “Don't lose track of time.” “Open your eyes to catch cheaters.” “Don't forget to say blah blah blah.” “You're not even meditating yourself.”

Such inner talk is a normal occurrence during meditation, perhaps interspersed with brief periods of spaciousness and calmness. I picked up the bells again but unintentionally clanked them into each other ahead of schedule, making a clumsy sound. I almost exclaimed, “That's not it!” but simply rang them again in a pleasing tone. I sat still a moment or two and looked slowly around the room. I sensed calmness and neutral indifference besprinkled with impatience and restlessness. I encouraged them to try the exercise on their own, and I explained that we would be doing the practice at the beginning of every class and build to 5 minutes' duration. I explained that it could help center us and clear out our mental pallets.

It was a very entry-level experience for them and for myself. An extended version would have required me to have more confidence and conviction. I also would have had to sideline other topics I had lovingly customized just to make room. I also wondered: Were social workers supposed to become certified meditation trainers and then come back to teach mindfulness? Were meditation masters supposed to get MSWs so they could teach social work? Some colleagues had imported an expert to conduct the meditation. I had been studying and practicing mindfulness for more than 20 years but not teaching it. Some of my hesitancy was an expression of ambivalence. My own connection to meditation was deeply spiritual, and I was not sure if I should or could convincingly promote a version of mindfulness carefully sterilized for secular consumption in the West. Yet I had jumped in ... ankle deep.

At the end of the semester, on my customized class evaluation, mindfulness ranked third out of 10 in educational value. Thus, the effort seems sufficiently successful to keep, and I will probably expand it in future years.

 
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