Mindfulness for Intercultural Learning, Part II

Sep 26, 2017

This is the second in a two-part series on the relationship between mindfulness and intercultural learning. Last month, I discussed what mindfulness is and why it’s an important component of intercultural learning (click here to read Part I if you missed it). In this post, I address the need to move from mindfulness as concept to mindfulness as practice, and provide specific ideas about how educators can incorporate mindfulness into their intercultural work.

Mindfulness in the Intercultural Field

Mindfulness has been recognized as an important concept in intercultural communication for some time. In her 1999 book, intercultural communication expert Stella Ting-Toomey explains that stereotyping is inevitable, and we must learn to distinguish between mindless stereotyping and mindful stereotyping. Ting-Toomey (1999) states:

“While mindful stereotyping evokes an open-minded attitude in dealing with others, mindless stereotyping reflects a closed-ended mindset. Mindless stereotyping refers to our tightly held beliefs concerning a group of individuals. Mindful stereotyping, on the other hand, refers to our consciously held beliefs about a group of individuals, with a willingness to change our loosely held images based on diversified, firsthand contact experiences.” (p. 164)

The challenge is that the focus on mindfulness within the intercultural field has remained primarily in the cognitive realm—it’s a helpful concept or idea. But one of the ways in which the intercultural field has evolved is by recognizing that knowing about or even understanding is not enough, we need to practice intercultural competence.

Similarly, in the intercultural field, we need to focus on mindfulness as a practice, not just a concept. (Telling people to be mindful is a little like telling a small child to behave; you’re much more likely to succeed if you help learners practice the desired behavior, as well as model it for them.)

When we talk about “practicing” mindfulness, it’s not practice in the sense that it’s a rehearsal. Practicing mindfulness is really doing mindfulness.

Schaetti, Ramsey, and Watanabe (2008) are the first interculturalists that I know of to address mindfulness as a practice. Personal Leadership—a methodology they developed to help people practice intercultural competence—includes mindfulness as one of its two core principles (the other is creativity). Personal Leadership involves six practices: attending to judgment, attending to emotion, attending to physical sensation, cultivating stillness, engaging ambiguity, and aligning with vision. Practicing mindfulness is not only a means for cultivating stillness, but also improves one’s ability to attend to judgment, emotion, and physical sensation, as well as to engage ambiguity and align with one’s vision.


Ideas for Incorporating Mindfulness into Intercultural Learning

Mindfulness often involves meditation, although there are other means of practicing as well. Last month, I talked about how my favorite practice is to take a daily mindful walk. Yoga is a popular means for practicing mindfulness, and doing any sport in which you are focused on experiencing “flow” is also a mindfulness exercise.

You could incorporate more “mindful moments” or “purposeful pauses” in your day, in which you simply slow down and focus on the present moment. Try using a specific prompt—such as opening a door or booting up your computer—to intentionally remind yourself to take a deep breath and focus on the present moment. Or you might choose an activity you do every day—like taking a shower or eating lunch—and do it mindfully, focusing on the present-moment experience (bringing awareness to what you are experiencing through your five senses).

The following are some concrete ideas about how you might incorporate mindfulness practices into your work to help support and promote intercultural learning.

Traditional Mindfulness Exercises. Teach your learners basic mindfulness meditations, such as breathing exercises or body scans. Provide a space to practice these; perhaps you start off your class or meetings together with one or two minutes of breathing. In addition, you can provide some background (or help your learners come to the realization themselves) about why mindfulness is important in your particular context, and when they might find it helpful to practice. For example, if you’re working with students who will be going abroad, or facilitating an orientation with new international students, you might introduce these practices (by doing them, not just talking about them!) and suggest they could be helpful when learners catch themselves having a negative reaction to something they’ve experienced.

Practice “Doing Nothing.” In a graduate course I taught on intercultural leadership, many of my students reported that one of the most powerful exercises we did was when I assigned them the task “do nothing.” That is, I told them to go find a place outside to sit, then to just “be” for a half hour. “Do nothing,” I instructed them—you can’t read, write, look at your phone, listen to music, etc. They didn’t have to meditate, but simply to focus on being in the present moment. After thirty minutes of doing nothing, they were to spend twenty minutes reflecting on and writing about the experience.

Why was this so impactful? In today’s world, most of us tend to be hyper-connected and achievement/doing-focused. We often don’t realize just how addicted we are to our technology or to the need to feel busy until we force ourselves to stop. But don’t take my word for it—try it for yourself. Stop everything you’re doing, find a quiet place to sit, and spend thirty minutes doing nothing. You might find it’s harder than you think. And there’s certainly something to be learned in that.

In addition, cultures differ in the extent to which they tend to focus on and value doing vs. being. This exercise can lead to a great discussion about where participants tend to fall on that spectrum, why that might be, our tendency to have strong—often unconscious—feelings about this, and how challenging yet valuable it can be to adapt to different ways.

Mindful Tours. Several years ago, I was co-leading a faculty development seminar in Madrid, Spain. One sunny afternoon, we were going to visit a local immigrant neighborhood. My co-leader walked in front of the group and I was in the rear. As we approached the neighborhood, I was mindful of our newly-formed group’s strong inclination to socialize. So when we arrived at the entrance of where we were going, I brought this to their attention and invited them to walk through the neighborhood we were visiting in silence. We proceeded to explore the neighborhood that way, then reconvened at the end to debrief.

Participants reported they were grateful for the invitation to be silent, which offered them an opportunity to experience the world around them and the present moment more fully because they did not feel the need to socialize. They reported noticing things that they didn’t think they would have otherwise.

Language Learning through Mindfulness. My colleague and friend, Catherine Menyhart, used to teach French at a public high school. Her first-block freshman students typically arrived late, excited, distracted, or all of the above. One day, because she was teaching verb commands as well as new vocabulary for body and health, Catherine decided to put the two together and begin class by walking students through a mindfulness meditation—specifically a body scan, in which you slowly move your awareness from your toes to your head, one body part at a time—in French. “Slowly close your eyes,” she began...

Catherine says her students loved the exercise, so she began starting in this way every day. Tardiness declined, as students would race to get to class before the door closed for the mindfulness practice. In addition, students were calmer, more centered, and better able to focus on learning throughout the rest of the class period. (And I’m guessing most of them probably still know all their body parts in French and can conjugate a mean French command!)

Pre-Meeting Mindfulness Practice. Ever been in a meeting where it seemed like everyone was somewhere else—checking email, thinking about where they need to be next, or carrying with them burdens from a previous meeting? Why not take a minute or two (literally) at the beginning of the meeting to ask everyone to put away any unnecessary technology, leave other responsibilities outside the room, take a few deep breaths, and bring their awareness to the present?

How do exercises such as these help us and our learners act in interculturally competent ways? As Viktor Frankl once said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Practicing mindfulness in intercultural situations helps us create that space where personal growth, shared learning, and ultimately greater peace can flourish.

Your Thoughts?

These are just some examples of ways I have seen mindfulness incorporated into intercultural learning. What are your ideas? In the comments section below, please share what ideas resonate with you, what you’d like to try, or what you are currently doing to incorporate mindfulness into your own life or your work as an educator.

References & Relevant Resources

Gelles, D. (2015). Mindful work: How meditation is changing business from the inside out. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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

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

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.

Ting-Toomey, S. (1999). Communicating across cultures. New York: The Guilford Press.

More about Personal Leadership:

Mindful Teachers:

  • A great resource for educators; includes many exercises for teaching mindfulness, especially to K-12 students

Mindful Schools:

  • Mindfulness training for educators; includes a very good Resources page

Mindfulness Apps: There are many apps now offering free guided meditations (the irony of this is not lost on me); for a list of some of the best and what they offer, visit

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