I teach literature. My students read a lot, and I want them to read well—closely, carefully, attentively. I’ve always heard that the best readers were read to when they were young and then read voraciously when they were growing up. This makes great sense to me, but it also suggests that those who don’t fit that profile will struggle as readers. How can we help our students–already in college and past these formative years–become better readers? A recent study on mindfulness and the GRE (Graduate Record Exam, no simple reading task) offers a strategy.
I pause at the word “strategy.” It seems out of place in a sentence with “mindfulness.” Beyond its basic definition of “the science or art of combining and employing the means of war in planning and directing large military movements and operations,” it connotes something more methodical and goal-oriented than we associate with mindfulness. Hm. Misconception alert!
Arnie Kozak (2009) identifies the fierce warrior as a metaphor for mindfulness, which “doesn’t have to be tranquil and passive. It can be active, precise, and strong–even fierce. This runs counter to images of serene pools and drops of water” (p. 25). Instead, he says, mindfulness can be a “precise and courageous way of looking at everything–including your own mind.” While the metaphor of the snow globe has resonated with me, this one will serve others better. If you prefer tackling a task with determination or performing intense workouts, this idea of the fierce warrior may make more sense. This warrior has “Fierce Attention,” which can help us become “more efficient and creative by cutting out much of the distraction that typically plagues the mind…especially when peak performance is required” (p. 26).
This metaphor helps explain the findings in this recent study about the effect of a little mindfulness on working memory and reading comprehension. Mrazek and colleagues (2013) split a group of 48 undergraduates between two short courses, one on nutrition and the other on mindfulness. Each met for just two weeks—in eight 45-minute sessions. The mindfulness sessions focused on
“(a) sitting in an upright posture with legs crossed and gaze lowered,
(b) distinguishing between naturally arising thoughts and elaborated thinking,
(c) minimizing the distracting quality of past and future concerns by reframing them as mental projections occurring in the present,
(d) using the breath as an anchor for attention during meditation,
(e) repeatedly counting up to 21 consecutive exhalations, and
(f) allowing the mind to rest naturally rather than trying to suppress the occurrence of thoughts.” (p. 777)
Each session included 10 to 20 minutes of the above practices, discussion, and feedback. Before and after the courses, students took a standard working memory measure of being told to remember a sequence of 3 to 7 numbers, do an unrelated task, and then recite back the sequence–15 times. They then took the GRE section on reading comprehension.* During this test, they were prompted eight times to rate their focus on the task, they independently kept track of how many times their minds wandered, and afterwards they described their attention levels. Compared to those in the nutrition class, the students in the mindfulness class recorded less mind wandering in the probes, self-recording, and retrospective assessment and improved their scores on both the working memory capacity test and the GRE–by an average of 16 percentage points. These effects were especially strong among those who had the most mind wandering before the mindfulness class.
This study reminds us that mindfulness can be seen as “a persistent effort to maintain focus on a single aspect of experience, particularly sensations of breathing, despite the frequent interruptions of unrelated perceptions or personal concerns” (p. 780). So embrace the metaphor of a warrior with fierce attention and read with intensity.
Better yet, offer students a short course on mindfulness with the curriculum described in (a) through (f) above. How many study skills, campus counseling centers, and tutoring centers offer such resources? Not enough, I suspect.
This week, let’s see how this “fierceness” feels by trying (e) above.
- Sit where you are, and close your eyes or look at the floor just in front of you.
- Take a few long, slow, deep breaths, and focus on the exhale.
- Notice the details: the sound of the air moving up through your throat and out your nose, the relative warmth of that air on your nostrils, the contraction of your chest and belly, the awareness of your mind as you notice these details.
- Now breathe naturally, keeping your attention on the exhales.
- Start counting those exhales. Wrap your attention around the number each time you breathe out.
- Do this 21 times.
- Fiercely focus on the counting of your exhales. 21 times.
- Come back to the room with the singular concentration of Bruce Lee.
Now, go read a book.
* Specifically, the researchers used the GRE’s verbal reasoning section without the vocabulary questions. According to the GRE site, this section “measures your ability to understand what you read and how you apply your reasoning skills,” specifically the abilities to
- analyze and draw conclusions from discourse; reason from incomplete data; identify author’s assumptions and/or perspective; understand multiple levels of meaning, such as literal, figurative and author’s intent
- select important points; distinguish major from minor or relevant points; summarize text; understand the structure of a text
- understand the meanings of words, sentences and entire texts; understand relationships among words and among concepts.