A VCU class on contemplative practices offers important lessons on how to be present
Throughout his career, Virginia Commonwealth University instructor Dingani Mthethwa has tried to pass along mindfulness practices from South Africa, where he was raised. This semester he has taken the idea a step further. He is teaching “Sociology of Contemplative Practices,” a new class in the Department of Sociology in the College of Humanities and Sciences that examines contemplative and mindfulness practices around the world.
Mthethwa, who has taught at VCU since 2006, has been interested in contemplative or mindfulness teachings for the past decade. The journey started when he attended a workshop on mindfulness and realized that he had been immersed in the practices since he was a child, even if he did not realize it at the time. He said his native Zulu traditions incorporate contemplative practices into everyday living and the workshop awakened those memories.
“They ran this workshop, and there were these moments where there was this silence,” Mthethwa said. "I remember thinking, ‘Where do I know this from?’ It was like coming home.”
Contemplative practices are designed to help people become aware of their surroundings and be more present. Mthethwa said many people who teach contemplative practices draw on traditions from Asia, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, but he said these teaching can be seen all around the world.
In South Africa, a greeting between people can sometimes take 15 minutes, unlike in the United States where people greet each other quickly and then begin a discussion. Mthethwa said people in his native tradition take the time to be present and understand the other person. They want to listen and understand if anything is burdening the person.
Over the years, Mthethwa has incorporated these practices into his classes. At the beginning of a class, he has students sit silently and reflect. He tries to help them be present and aware when the class begins. He also wants them to reflect and understand the challenges everyone faces as a human being. For one exercise based on a Zulu tradition, he has students create a bracelet that reflects their feelings for someone who has had a huge impact on their lives. He then asks the students to give the bracelet to that person.
The practice has a profound impact, Mthethwa said. During one session, a student would break down every time he would start to talk about his bracelet. The student admitted that the bracelet was for his girlfriend, who had died the previous summer of a drug overdose. He could not get past the tragedy. Mthethwa told him to place the bracelet on the grave as a gift for her.
“This project gave him an opportunity to actually connect with his girlfriend who had passed away,” Mthethwa said.
Before the exercise, the student was failing in school. After placing the bracelet on the grave, the student excelled in school. He has since graduated law school and is a practicing lawyer, Mthethwa said.
Mthethwa had for some time wanted to teach a class dedicated to contemplative practices and was given the opportunity after a trip to South Africa with students. Jennifer A. Johnson, Ph.D., an associate professor and chair of the Department of Sociology, accompanied Mthethwa on the trip and observed the contemplative practices that he incorporated into experiences for the students.
“He used mindfulness training to help students clearly understand the power of community resilience to push for racial justice and equality,” Johnson said. “I have sought to bring these skills to our students to not only improve their social scientific skills but to also provide them with tools for personal resilience in the face of serious social injustices and challenging forces of social change.”
Susan Bodnar-Deren, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Sociology, and Mthethwa developed a curriculum for “Sociology of Contemplative Practices.” They wanted it to be more than just Mthethwa’s understanding of contemplative practice and include an overarching study of the practice across the globe.
The first half of the course introduces students to the idea of contemplative practices and examines current research. During the second half of the course, students are assigned a project where they examine specific areas of contemplative practices and give a presentation. The class draws on contemplative practices around the world including Zulu, Native American and others. The overall goal is to help students understand contemplative practices and find ways to incorporate the discipline into real-world situations.
Camila Tirado, a senior who is majoring in psychology and minoring in sociology, is taking the class and has been amazed at how much “energy Professor Dingani brings.” Tirado saw the description for the class and thought it would be a way for her to improve her well-being during the pandemic. She wanted a class that allowed her space to learn and grow.
“I have loved this class, because there is a lot of introspection and ways of understanding your identity within the world around you,” Tirado said. “There are so many things we can't control, including the differences in how we are socialized, but with self-reflection we are able to go deeper into ourselves.”
The spring session has around 30 students, meeting virtually. Mthethwa admits that it has been challenging to teach in the current virtual environment and he has had to adjust the way he teaches mindfulness practices for virtual learning. Next semester, however, the plan is to offer the course as a hybrid.
“I have found ways to make it work,” Mthethwa said. “I have been surprised.”
So far, feedback on the course has been positive. Mthethwa believes now is the perfect time to teach a class on the subject. During the pandemic, students are under a huge amount of stress, and they can learn to use these techniques to calm their minds and be more present, he said.
“Students have an opportunity to have a community where you can really talk to people.”