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The Zen of attention

5 min read


What is puzzling and fascinating about the field of teaching at present is that we must become masters in getting the attention of students, and yet little emphasis is placed on the techniques we can use to shape that attention. Over the course of earning three academic degrees I sat for dozens of courses on education and none of them ever included a refined study of the art of paying or getting attention. Contrary to current practice, some of the most ancient and revered teaching techniques involve nothing more than teaching students the deceptively refined art of paying attention. Why are these age-old arts rarely practiced in our classrooms? Why are they not typical parts of our teaching practice? Is “alright, quiet down over there,” really achieving what we want?

Each week, at our school assemblies, I use a Tibetan singing bowl to start the proceedings. Although singing bowls and other meditative sound making have some pockets of popularity around the world, they are mostly disregarded by teachers and in schools of education.

The singing bowl has long been used for contemplative practices. For something like 3000 years these sounds have been effective in producing sound of a therapeutic, calming and even healing nature. I love watching the scattered, talky, diverse group of students come into a sense of unity, such as this bowl invites, if not induces. I love watching the students and teachers in the assembly room as chaos transforms into a pure focus. What teacher would not want this atmosphere in the classroom?

There are, of course, various strategies teachers use for creating various states of attention in any room. For most of us, however, any silence will do, and all silence is the same. This could be a mistake. As Rick Hanson says in his book “Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom,” “attention shapes the brain.”

The singing bowl has taught me that there are various kinds of silence. Weekly, as the vibrations of the singing bowl calmly overcome the conversations and giggles, our assembly rooms transforms into tranquility again, always a little differently. At first, people become increasingly aware of this silencing across the room, and they tend to look around to confirm it. I normally continue to keep the bowl singing for a few seconds after that, even after the first silence has been achieved, and we can develop a collective, shared focus on the pure tone. Then, as I stop playing the bowl, it continues ringing for a while as the sound dissipates into nothing. It is silence you can hear, and it is the only time all week our entire campus is silent. In this way, the bowl has taught me to pay attention to paying attention. As a teacher, I try not to confuse a quiet room with clear and focused minds. Real attention means there are quiet voices, but also quiet minds.

I now believe that if we cannot embrace silence, we cannot embrace conversation. So we see, a class that is attuned to silence is just about the opposite of a class that is being quiet but not attuned. True silence entails the letting go of presumptions and judgments. The clear mind is open, receptive. And once the mind is open, the conversation can be open hearted. The teacher becomes a host, a mentor or, as Socrates described, the midwife, tapping into the insights of his/her students.

Of course, you do not need a bowl to teach silence. There are many techniques for us all to seek out. I have a nice collection of peaceful recordings, as well, that help achieve various states of mind from energized to calm, beta to theta. Baroque music. Ocean waves. Jazz. Even the volume I play these at makes a big difference in the kind of impact it has. Music must be extremely soft to “stay out of the way.” And there is no fast track to developing receptive students.

Paying attention is the quality of being heedful and of honoring ourselves and those around us with pure, non-discursive thought. What could be more respectful? I don’t know why schools and classroom teachers so rarely address this. We demand of our students pay attention as though the path to attentiveness is obvious, understood, and easy. It is none of these. From ancient to modern times, masters have studied the states of consciousness in an effort to do little more than “paying attention.” As teachers, the study of the attention of those around us, and of the quality and nature of that attention, is perhaps the ultimate mastery in teaching.

Stuart Grauer is a teacher, founding head of The Grauer School in Encinitas, Calif., and founder of the Small Schools Coalition. He accredits and consults for schools worldwide. He is the author of “Real Teachers.”