Two flowers in a field of grasses. The focus is on the grasses.


Meditation for Design Students in Times of Chaos and Crisis

I have been introducing my design students to meditation in class over the past few years. When we were in person, in the classroom, I would begin by presenting a short series of slides and videos to address why paying closer attention to the particular moment is important and why the deliberate practice of meditation can be beneficial. During this last fall semester, this did not feel simply important. It felt critical.

The pandemic has taken a toll on so many: the elderly in particular, as well as those from our most vulnerable populations, including the poor, those from Indigenous communities and those who are racialized or otherwise disenfranchised. But the toll on college and university students goes largely unseen and vastly underreported. Even before the pandemic, researchers at Carleton University found that “50 per cent of students felt so depressed that it was difficult to function” and they expect this winter to be far worse. Students that suffered anxiety, depression or other mental illness have it even harder as social isolation exacerbated their emotional distress and insecurity.

The vast majority of students in my classes are going to school while also working a part-time or even full-time job. Anecdotally, most of these students lost their jobs temporarily or permanently under the pandemic. They moved back home if they could. Others are cut off from their families in other provinces, states or countries.

Students are also meeting inside a 13.3 inch laptop monitor (or worse, a 3.4 inch smartphone). While I did my very best to build community among the 20 students in my fall course on design theory and criticism — through check-ins at the beginning of class, breakout rooms during class, and collaborative reading groups outside of class — the reality is that Zoom is an insufficient simulation for in person connection and the random humour and thoughtfulness that emerges in real space. Video conferencing for classrooms works. And it’s far better than the alternative, which is either no education or correspondence school. But it is a kind of simulacra, a digital shadow of living engagement.

It was the right time to elevate the introduction of quiet meditation to the class. As the scientific literature at least preliminarily indicates, researchers “report a small to moderate effect of mindfulness and mantra meditation techniques in reducing emotional symptoms (eg, anxiety, depression, and stress) and improving physical symptoms (eg, pain).” Meditation in higher education classroom environments provides a shared moment of reflection and quiet that help students connect with one another as well as with the space and time at hand, ostensibly even when time and space are virtualized. And it provides an alternative mode of processing information while encouraging everyone to realize that they are in this together, at least for the next 2.5 hours.

How did I do it? It is not complicated. On the second day of class, I told students that we were going to have a short, guided meditation at the start. I explained that this was neither a religious exercise nor was it mandatory. There were zero expectations except for one to simply sit. Students could keep eyes open or closed, though closed is generally better at first. And I repeated that this was a fully optional exercise — if it was not to your liking or interest, you could simply do something else for a minute. And of course, there was no grade associated with it! The immediate goal was to bring everyone into the classroom (albeit virtual) and to ground us and center us for the presentations and conversations ahead.

Then I offered a guided meditation, as we sat, eyes closed, mind open, for one minute.

That’s it. I used a ringing bell on an iPhone app to mark the beginning and the end of our sitting minute. And it may be worthwhile to note that my words were meant to be calming and encouraging over the course of that minute.

Over the next few weeks, I continued this mindful minute exercise at the start of every class. Midway through the class, I elongated it from one minute to two. Toward the end of the class, we sat for three minutes. Perhaps, for some, that felt like an eternity.

Meditation is Mediation, not Merriment

I want to add that the purpose here is not just to have students “feel better” about themselves, or the classroom, or the instructor. It is also not about getting students to behave or to perform better. I am not interested in meditation as some form of performance drug. And I’m not interested in students being part of some corporatized happiness project, a subject that I will discuss later. Rather, the goal is to help students realize that they are responsible for being fully in the class, that they are part of something larger, and that, by the law of transitive properties, they are also responsible for the immediate and greater world they inhabit.

The work that needs to get done is too big, either in class or in the world, for us to just jump in without acknowledging each other and our own presence. To be more exact, working to mitigate climate change, improve civil society, demand social justice and build democratic institutions cannot be addressed by saying let’s just do something. The hard work before us requires focus, attention and activation. And while the design class was not built to explicitly address all of these issues, they were part of our conversations throughout.

Meditation is a singular, but not the only, means to help one recognize the interconnected nature of reality. It helps us see that our minds and our bodies are part of an unfolding process — and that we can find the means to control our response to it, even during sometimes overwhelming crises and chaos. It is an answer to the fierce individualism that we experience under late capitalism. It allows us to see each other as beings, conscious and connected to the greater world. It opens space for critical thinking, for discovery and for saying yes — as well as no. For this class, with a focus on the questions of “why”, meditation (or the pause of mind) is actually a kind of mediation. It a small stepping stone upon which we can launch into ideas, images and inference.