Students Using Skillful Mean Greg Brooks-English | Professor of Yonsei University
One of the reasons I left my teaching position at the oldest and largest Buddhist university in South Korea where I taught English and meditation was because they did not want me to teach a course called, The Bible for Buddhists. While there are sometimes good relations between Buddhists and Christians in South Korea, especially among Anglicans and Catholics, there has also been bad blood with some extremist fundamentalist Christians setting fire to Buddhist temples and sometimes, tragically, burning them down. Thus, it’s understandable that some Buddhist institutions would see Christianity as a threat. To make matters worse for Buddhism in South Korea, the rate of Christianity had steadily increased in the past decades to reach as high as about 40% of the total population. However, in recent times, both Buddhism and Christianity in South Korea has begun to drop, while atheists, agnostics and non-believers are now increasing as a percentage of the population. Nowadays, being non-religious seems to be more and more popular among university students.
In contrast, when I moved to top-ranked Yonsei University in 2010, the oldest and largest Christian university in South Korea, while they asked me what my religion was before hiring me (my answer was “love”), the administration ironically – seemed to be more tolerant than my old university. For the past seven years I’ve taught meditation in my classes as mind science, and a form of scientifically validated stress-reduction called Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, or M.B.S.R., as originally inspired by John Kabat-Zinn. When I started at Dongguk in 2005, I would introduce the history of meditation and the science behind it, teach the technique, briefly practice it, and then get feedback. The student feedback was almost always overwhelmingly positive. Then, I would ask if there were any students who did not want to participate in meditation before each class for 3-5 minutes. Occasionally, I would encounter a Christian student who did not want to meditate with the class. To meet this student’s needs, I would kindly suggest during our meditation time that they rest in the energy they know to be God, and practice the same technique, returning again and again to that energy. This seemed to work for this kind of student.
Shortly after I arrived at Yonsei University the administration agreed to offer elective one-credit pass/fail freshman seminars with professors limited to 12 students to support freshman getting to know us more intimately. I reveled in the opportunity. After my first class, the next semester I had students come to ask, “Can I please get into your class, Meditation in Daily Life?” I told them politely that I could not admit more because it was recommended that I only permit 12 students. I saw that other colleagues were teaching more than twelve, so the semester after that I expanded it to 20, then 30, then 50, and today, 210 because the lecture hall won’t fit more. I’m now aiming for the largest lecture hall that holds nearly 350 students. At present, I teach 16% of all incoming freshman students, mostly due to me teaching this one meditation course.
TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Talk on mind science at the Yonsei University International
Campus Lecture Hall. Professor Greg was the lecturer.
So, what do I do that students like so much? First, I have really lived meditation as an outgrowth of my own life experience. I only teach topics that I am personally interested in and have passion for. Out of my first and only divorce in 2000, I intensively studied and practiced meditation as a remedy. Since then, I have done five 10-day Vipassana Retreats in the SN Goenka tradition, lived and worked for over a year in the Plum Village tradition of Buddhism of ThichNhat Hanh, and studied and worked for half a year at Lerab Ling in France with Sogyal Rinpoche while being his gardener, childcare provider for his son, Yeshe, and kitchen cook during retreats. I even did a 10-day Empowerment with Trulshik Rinpoche there, the Dalai Lama’s tutor, in the summer of 2002. As an important (if not essential) complement, I studied and practiced Nonviolent Communication as taught by Marshall B. Rosenberg. I suspect that what makes me a decent teacher is that I’ve been to the depths of my own pain and used meditation to help me through it. While I still have aspects of my practice that I still think need improving, I’ve certainly emerged from meditation going in a wholesome direction.
Notwithstanding, beginning meditators can get training and practice in order to teach without going through a divorce, death of loved one, or other similar life-event.
Understanding, practicing, and applying the technique of M.B.S.R. is essential so that students get maximum benefit. I teach the technique in four easy steps with the proviso to not consciously control one’s breath, but instead maintain a default setting to simply observe:
1) Notice the sensation of your in and out breath.
2) Thinking happens… it’s OK.
3) Notice you are thinking and/or feeling.
4) Return to #1.
My ‘ivy-league’ students love being #1, and thus, I say, “…try to stay in the #1 spot, but if you don’t it’s OK. Just relax. You can’t force the benefit of meditation. Each return to #1 creates more space in the mind, as if one is in a meditation gym, each set creating yet more space.”
Other metaphors that have worked for my students include comparing and contrasting the space within one’s own mind with that of the space between particles in an atom and planets in a solar system. By imagining the smallest and largest physical matter, and connecting it with students’ own minds, it seems to have positive effect.
Another technique I have developed over the years is to compare and contrast the various forms of physical survival to give the students a felt experience in their own bodies, from which many are disassociated and need to get in touch with again. These forms include the questions in order of least importance, “How long can you survive without food?”, “How long can you survive without water?”, and “How long can you survive without air?” Students really have fun guessing at the answers, and I reveal the answers as part of a “space-training program” in which I invoke the name of Lee, So-yun, South Korea’s first astronaut. I tell students it’s expensive to go into space, and have them guess the answer as to how much it costs. Then, I tell them, “Wouldn’t you like to go into space for free!?” They all become very curious seeing what a deal it can be!My invisible “space-ship” parked somewhere on campus, later turns out to be a meditation bell. Hilariously funny?
While there is so much more I do in my classes to make meditation fun and directly relate to students’ direct experience, I have found that meditation instruction should be fun and joyful in the beginning, but later students should be encouraged to understand that becoming attached to having exciting, fun, and joyful experiences can be a major obstacle to practice. Most important is that the teacher is able to create a safe space in which students feel free to be real with what is happening for them during meditation, whatever it might be.
Hanh, ThichNaht. The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation. Beacon Press: Boston, MA. 1996.
Kabbat-Zinn, John.Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Mediation in Everyday Life. Hachette Books: New York, NY. 2009.
Rosenberg, Marshall B. Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, 3rd Edition.Puddledancer Press:Carlsbad, CA. 2015.
Greg Brooks-English A long-time practitioner of SN Goenka’s Vipassana shares his experience of what it is, some of its benefits, and how he came to find it. From a painful divorce to a rigorous world-renowned 10-day meditation retreat, learn more about what makes this non-sectarian Vipassana tradition – now in South, Korea – one of the most effective meditation programs available anywhere today for living a truly happy life. Presently he teaches English and meditation in Yonsei University.