Tang Fellow Discusses Work on “Mindful Community” at Andover
Tang Fellow Andy Housiaux is leading our “Mindful Community” project, which aims to support all members of the community—students, staff, and faculty—in their cultivation of mindfulness in daily life. The overarching goal of the Empathy and Balance pillar of the Andover Strategic Plan identifies “mutual understanding and individual well-being as essential to a thriving community.” Mindfulness practice can play an important role in enhancing individual health and cultivating empathy in interactions with others.
Housiaux recently discussed the priorities of his work, the courses he’s leading on campus, and the potential benefits mindfulness can bring to the PA community. He offered up his thoughts on a range of topics, including stress reduction, countering the effects of social media and multiple distractors, what clinical research tells us about mindfulness, and how we can focus on leading good lives.
What are the goals of your project?
My main goals are to support those who wish to cultivate mindfulness and to live a bit more intentionally on a day-to-day basis. Mindfulness is traditionally defined as paying attention on purpose in the present moment. It’s learning to pause, learning to respond instead of react. As we cultivate this skill over time, we can create emotional balance in the face of challenges that life throws at us. Mindfulness and stress reduction go hand-in-hand.
What are some mindfulness strategies?
In the classes with adults and students, we practice mindfulness of the breath. We practice placing our minds on the breath and then watching what happens when our minds wander: perhaps to anxiety, perhaps to planning, perhaps to boredom. We try to cultivate a gentle curiosity toward whatever comes up in our experience. As we do so, we learn to pay attention without judgement, and to engage directly with our inner lives without the usual distractions of cell phones or social media.
Another way to think about mindfulness is monotasking rather than multitasking. Brains don’t actually multitask, they just jump from stimulus to stimulus. When we multitask, we habituate ourselves to scattered minds. There are real benefits in training ourselves to do one thing very intentionally rather than doing many with a scattered mind. As we notice we become distracted, we can use that as an opportunity to return to the task at hand. Instead of habituating ourselves to business, we can habituate ourselves to pausing and re-collecting our minds.
What kinds of work are you doing on and off campus?
Currently I’m working with faculty and staff to find time to come together as a community to practice mindfulness. We have two different drop-in sessions for the adult community on Wednesday and a similar session for students on Thursday mornings. I’m also partnering on campus with the Empathy and Balance Strategic Plan Implementation Group to introduce existing school-based mindfulness curricula to PA students.
Some of my own training is through the Mindful Schools Organization in the Bay Area, where I am currently involved in the Year-Long course. This semester, more than 20 faculty members will be taking a six-week online Mindfulness Fundamentals course, as part of the Mindful Schools curriculum. I’ll be leading participants in a weekly in-person discussion. (For reference see a recent article in Education Weekly about mindfulness in education written by a Mindful Schools administrator.)
Last fall PA participated in an event with John Kabat-Zinn, who is a real pioneer in the field. About 25 students, staff, and faculty attended a talk that he gave in Boston, “The Mainstreaming of Mindfulness in America: The Promise and The Perils.”
What stands out?
I offer a student class on mindfulness that meets at 8 a.m. on Thursdays. This is a time when students usually sleep in. Instead students come together to form community by exploring their minds and inner lives. They report that the practice helps them to engage more fully with their days and with their lives: it gives them a sense of focus and emotional balance. I personally find the community that is formed—even though much of our time together is spent in silence—to be an especially meaningful part of that work.
What does a mindful culture look like at Andover?
At the start, it means having individuals on campus who are familiar with this practice and can use it to help live lives that are a little less stressed and more balanced. To me, it also means the community that is formed when members of our campus come together.
In class, it could be as simple as spending two minutes in silence at the beginning of class, allowing students to fully arrive in the classroom. It can take students a while to transition from one class—from one academic subject—to another, sometimes as much as 10 minutes. It may be just recognizing that and allowing students to transition properly.
Some of my work connects with what Tang Fellow Noah Rachlin is doing around developing a learning disposition. His work is very much centered on helping students to focus, so there are definite parallels to mindfulness there. If students’ minds are not in the same room as their bodies, then it’s difficult for them to listen and learn and to connect with people. So it’s about showing up to life and quality over quantity.
What are the longer term effects of mindfulness?
Clinical research points to positive outcomes in terms of behavior and affect in students. There have also been specific changes in the brain observed, in response to regular mindfulness practices. A lot of times the habitual ways we react to stress only exacerbate it. What do we do in response to stress is what matters most. We can learn to work with the breath, to stop and pause, and to relate differently to internal and external stress.
If we can teach people how to respond to stress more skillfully, the gray matter in their brains can change. With regular training, we can very literally change our brain matter and have a baseline state of increased calm.
What do you hope people take away?
A sense for paying attention and habituating to one thing at a time rather than many. Mindfulness is a means to an end. There’s no guarantee in what happens with it, but we can at least cultivate these skills in students. I also hope that some people can use it as a way to manage stress. It can help students develop a sense of who they are as human beings, even amid a busy, technology-ridden, multi-distraction environment. Students should have an understanding of what a good life is and an ability to focus—really focus—on how they want to use their talents and abilities. Mindfulness can perhaps offer some contributions to that worthy goal.
Housiaux is leading the Mindful Community project at the Tang Institute. He is a Philosophy and Religious Studies Instructor at Phillips Academy and also serves as a House Counselor and coaches soccer and ultimate frisbee. He earned a BA in Religion from Columbia University and a Master’s in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School.