Mindfulness for Intercultural Learning, Part I

Aug 30, 2017

One topic that’s come up a lot lately in my trainings that I find people are very eager to learn more about is mindfulness. In this blog post—part one of a two-part series on mindfulness—I discuss what mindfulness is and why it’s an important component of intercultural learning. In next month’s post, I’ll provide some specific ideas about how educators can incorporate mindfulness into their intercultural work.

Definition of Mindfulness

According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is largely responsible for bringing mindfulness to the secular world, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

We spend most of our lives operating on automatic pilot, with unconscious scripts guiding our actions. This is necessary and useful because it frees up mental capacity to focus our attention on more complex tasks.

However, there is a limit to the efficiency and helpfulness of operating on autopilot. Since our habitual responses are culture-bound, they are likely to be inappropriate when we’re crossing cultures. As a simple example, operating on autopilot and driving on the right-hand side of the street would be very problematic in the UK. Such situations require us to act mindfully, being present in a way that allows us to respond to the world in an intentional way.

Some people think of mindfulness and meditation as synonymous; however, meditation is simply one means of practicing mindfulness. There are other ways of practicing, most of which focus on bringing awareness to the present moment. It can be as simple as taking a few intentional breaths before walking into a meeting or in a moment of stress.

One of my favorite practices is taking a mindful walk mid-day (I literally have “mindful walk” scheduled on my calendar every day after lunch). During these walks, I try not to ruminate on work or my to-do list, but instead focus on the present moment, tuning in to how I’m experiencing the world through my five senses.

I used to think taking a mindful walk every day was a luxury I didn’t have time for. Now I realize I don’t have time not to do it. Because that walk re-energizes me in a way I didn’t realize I needed; I typically return to my work refreshed, more capable of thinking in innovative and creative ways, and am more productive as a result.


Research on Mindfulness

The research on mindfulness has exploded since the early 1990’s invention of the fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging), which allows researchers to map and measure neural activity.

Practicing mindfulness has been linked to increased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which is associated with self-regulation, meaning the ability to purposefully direct attention and behavior, suppress inappropriate knee-jerk responses, and switch strategies flexibly.

In addition to self-regulation, the ACC is associated with learning from past experience to support optimal decision-making. Scientists point out that the ACC may be particularly important in the face of uncertain and fast-changing conditions.

Research has also demonstrated that practicing mindfulness can impact activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functions such as perspective-taking, impulse control, decision-making, and also influences how emotionally resilient a person is in the face of stress and adversity. The left and right sides of the prefrontal cortex regulate emotions differently; mindfulness has been shown to shift activity from the right to left side. Kabat-Zinn (2013) explains that “resilience in the face of emotional challenges is characterized by greater activation of the left side of the prefrontal cortex” (p. 315).

The body of scientific research illustrating the positive effects of mindfulness training on mental health and well-being—at the level of the brain as well as at the level of behavior—grows steadily more well-established: Mindfulness can improve attention, reduce stress, and lead to better emotional regulation and an improved capacity for compassion and empathy.


The Link Between Mindfulness and Intercultural Learning

At this point, you’re probably beginning to see the links between mindfulness and intercultural learning.

Before we go further, let’s think about the students we work with—the majority are in that transitionary space between adolescence and adulthood, known as emerging adulthood. This time in a person’s life tends to be marked by a feeling of liminality, identity exploration, instability, yet also optimism.

Emerging adults have fewer implicit self-regulators and are more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors. During these years, their brains—especially the prefrontal cortex (which, as mentioned earlier, is responsible for higher-order functions such as impulse control, planning, perspective-taking, and problem-solving)—are still developing in significant ways.

Consider how that might be affected when a young person crosses cultures, whether they are going to a different country or moving from a rural area to attend college in a big city. No doubt these feelings of liminality, identity exploration, instability, and optimism are significantly heightened.

The following are some of the key ways in which mindfulness can support intercultural learning during such experiences:


  • Noticing and slowing down our automatic reactions. As mentioned earlier, acting on autopilot can be necessary and helpful when we are in familiar cultural contexts, but typically not when crossing cultures. Practicing mindfulness helps us learn to slow down, notice when reacting on autopilot may not serve us or the situation, and respond in an intentional way instead.


  • Increasing self-awareness. “Culture” is essentially the habits of our mind – how we have been programmed. Increasing intercultural competency requires becoming more aware of our own cultural programming—understanding how the ways we make meaning of the world are socially and culturally constructed. This includes the need to get in touch with our emotions and physical sensations, and consider what they offer us in any given moment. Mindfulness helps increase our awareness of our emotions, embodied experience, and the habits of our mind. Practicing mindfulness helps us get in touch with who we are on a deeper level.


  • Increasing other awareness. A key component of intercultural learning is understanding how others may make meaning of the world differently than we do. This requires being attuned to our external environment, observing and identifying patterns. Practicing mindfulness increases our ability to pay attention and notice the world around us.


  • Engaging ambiguity. Intercultural experiences involve a lot of novel situations and require us to engage ambiguity, to get comfortable not knowing. Mindfulness helps us connect with the present moment and become more comfortable with not knowing.


  • Increasing creativity. Bridging across cultural differences often requires outside-the-box, both/and thinking. By helping us slow down, increasing our self-awareness, and making us more comfortable with ambiguity, mindfulness also improves our capacity for creativity. Being mindful allows us to see possibilities and opportunities that we may not have otherwise seen.


  • Enhancing resiliency. Crossing cultures can be stressful. There is so much new and unknown. Mindfulness has been shown to reduce stress and increase resilience and well-being. By practicing mindfulness, we improve our ability to handle and respond to the fast-changing conditions inherent in intercultural experiences.


  • Cultivating compassion and empathy. Being able to empathize with others and see the world from their perspective is critical in intercultural learning. Mindfulness has been shown to increase compassion and empathy for others.


These are just some of the ways in which practicing mindfulness can support intercultural learning. This is true for our students, but also for us as educators. Personally, I know practicing mindfulness helps me when crossing cultures (at home or abroad); furthermore, it also helps me be a much more effective educator and facilitator, and in other countless ways.

Next month I’ll talk more about some of the ways we can incorporate mindfulness into the intercultural work we do. In the meantime, I’d love to know more about the connections you see between mindfulness and intercultural learning; please comment below!

References & Relevant Resources

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full catastrophe living; Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness (revised edition). New York: Bantam Books.

Marturano, J. (2014). Finding the space to lead: A practical guide to mindful leadership. New York: Bloomsbury Press.

Nees, G. (2015). Connecting hearts and minds: Insights, skills, and best practices for dealing with difference. Longmont, CO: Vagus Publications.

Rechtschaffen, D. (2014). The way of mindful education: Cultivating well-being in teachers and students. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Roeser, R. (2012). Mindfulness as self-care strategy for emerging adults. Healthy Body - Healthy Mind, 26(1). Available online at

Schaetti, B.F., Ramsey, S.J., & Watanabe, G.C. (2008). Personal Leadership: Making a world of difference: A methodology of two principles and six practices. Seattle, WA: FlyingKite Publications.

Siegel, D.J. (2011). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. New York: Bantam Books.

Mind & Life Institute:

Center for Healthy Minds (University of Wisconsin-Madison):

Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society (University of Massachusetts Medical School):

Mindful Schools:

Mindful magazine and online resource center:

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