33 Reading as a Mindful Practice

Listening. We take the act for granted, but what do you do when you listen to a text, or another person speaking to you, or the TV? What is happening in your head as you listen to someone else say something to you? What is happening in your mind as you read these words? What is your body doing as you read this text? Are you fully and undividedly listening to the words on this page as you read them in your head or aloud? Chances are, if you are like almost everyone else on the planet, your attention is divided to some degree. You may be reading these words, but you are also thinking of other things. Have you ever read a page or even a chapter from something, finished reading or paused, then realized that you don’t know much of what you had just read? Your mind was multitasking as you were reading, perhaps it was like a running monologue to yourself about anything and everything, your own voice speaking to you in your mind as you read these words, telling you that you are hungry, or that you should have worn that green shirt, or that you don’t really understand the point of this class, or that you’re anxious about next week’s test, etc. This is normal. Everyone’s mind does this. In fact, one might say it is how our minds work, but they don’t always work this way. This multitasking of the mind actually keeps you from reading academic and dense texts carefully and critically, even to the point of not really knowing what you just read. Most of the time, a “hard” or dense text is not inherently hard to read. Since reading is an act, a labor of the body, a dense text is only hard to read because it requires readers to read more mindfully, to read with undivided attention in a body that is prepared for that reading.We read through our bodies, not just in heads.

Occasionally, our minds are silent for a moment, our bodies still but alert. In that moment, we aren’t thinking about anything. There is no monologue. When this happens, we are the most aware and alert to things around us, including words. Many have found ways to silence the monologue intentionally so that a deeper awareness of what is happening in one’s life, such as reading a text, can occur, a deeper awareness of what these words mean and don’t mean, what they could mean, and what might be underneath them, assumed by the writer, tacit or implied. This kind of careful listening to words as we read in silence requires an attention to our bodies and takes practice, but it’s easy to begin doing.

Preparing to Practice Mindful Reading

To help us think about mindful reading practices and the listening they require, read this excerpt from Barbezat and Bush’s, Contemplative Practices in Higher Education (2014). As you read it, note how they explain the reasons why it is hard to really listen deeply to others, or to texts when we read them. Once you’ve done that, take a look at these excerpts from Mary Rose O’Reilley’s book, Radical Presence (1998). She’s a poet and college professor, but this book is about teaching writing. As you read, notice two concepts central to her practice of deep reading: paying attention and silence. They are not natural to us as humans. Both need cultivating when practicing mindful reading. Finally, consider physicist, Arthur Zajonc’s explanation of why reading texts requires us to pay attention in a very special way in Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry (2009). He’s speaking about meditation, but also reading, since listening carefully and deeply to others and texts is a contemplative act. He says:

One cannot meditate fast. It is simply impossible . . . The tempo of mediation is the tempo of the arts. Consider, for example, the following Emily Dickinson poem. Read these lines as fast as you can:

I many times thought peace had come,

When peace was far away;

As wrecked men deem they sight the land

At centre of the sea,

And struggle slacker, but to prove,

As hopelessly as I,

How many fictitious shores

Before the harbor lie.

Did you feel an inner resistance to speeding through the words? Now read them much more slowly and aloud, savoring the sounds and meanings. In the second way we experience the artistry of the poem. Its beauty is revealed through cadence, imagery, tone, and content. Poetry demands that we respect its time-organism. When reading fast, you may understand the lines but the artistry is inaccessible, the time-organism is violated, the poem is dead. Thought can move at lightning speed, but the art of the poem demands a slower tempo, the tempo of heartbeat and breath, the tempo of life and feeling. Whether beholding a painting or listening to music, whether reading poetry or viewing a play, time must slow down in order for us to enter into the object of our attention with our heart as well as our head. (pp. 50-51)

What I hope you can see is that careful, critical productive reading is kind of like meditation. Or if you prefer, it’s like what all those medieval monks dedicated their entire lives to, the reading and copying of sacred texts. Reading mindfully isn’t about finishing or being done with a text. It’s about being in the reading, the act of reading, letting the words have the “tempo of heartbeat and breath.” So, three things seem important to cultivate in any practice of mindful reading: silence, paying attention to our object of listening, and tempo (slowing down time). In my opinion, it is the last one that we might initially focus on, since it is connected to our bodies. Reading mindfully and deeply means reading at the pace of breath, respecting the words in front of us, entering the text, which means we must stop thinking about finishing the reading and think only about being in the act of reading.

Mindful Reading

Thus, mindful reading is reading when your mind and body are most calm and silent – that is, reading when the monologue has stopped, when your body is prepared and positioned to read, and when you are fully present. The key is to find some practices that will help you stop the monologue, at least for a time, cultivate silence and bodily alertness, pay attention to what’s in front of us, and just be in the act of reading. To do this, we’ll use a version of mindful breathing, which you can learn more about how and why it works in an article by Deborah David from the Huffington Post, “Why Mindful Breathing Works.”  We’ll do the practice before each reading labor we have in our class:

  1. Find a quiet, distraction-free place with little or no ambient noise or motions in the background. This is important. Sounds and sights around us in small ways take our attention away from a text when we read, even when we don’t realize it. Silence and the absence of motion in the environment are your friends when trying to silence the monologue and find focus and awareness when reading.
  2. Create a comfortable, upright bodily position in which to read. If we are going to read with purpose and attention, it makes sense to get our bodies into a position of intention. When you are upright and your back is straight, your diaphragm has more freedom to articulate your lungs—physiologically, you can get the most oxygen to your brain, helping your body stay alert. It’s not really a good idea to read lying down. That bodily position is not conducive to alertness and awareness, which is important for carefully reading a text. When you lie down your body begins to shift into rest and relaxation mode. This might work well for casual or leisurely reading, but reading academic texts is a different kind of act requiring more focus and attention than you might be used to giving while reading.
  3. Spend 2-5 minutes just breathing mindfully. There is lots of research that shows the benefits of mindfulness practices. One of the benefits is helping one to focus just on the body so that the mind’s monologue subsides. There are several ways to mindfully breathe, but to start, try sitting in your comfortable, upright position, closing your eyes (or looking down at a spot on the floor about 4 feet in front of you), and breathing in through your nose, deeply and slowly, then out through your mouth slowly and completely. As you breathe, notice the feelings in your body, in your nose as the air comes in, in your belly and throat as you exhale. Just pay attention to those physical sensations. What does it feel like to breathe? When your mind begins to talk to you, notice the thought and let it go. Don’t pursue it or worry about it. Notice and release it. It’s okay to have thoughts during mindful breathing. If you practice this, you’ll find it easier to clear your mind, but clearing your mind is not the point. The point is to focus on your body, on your breathing. Just be right there in the moment, breathing.
  4. If you can, ring a bell or chime and focus on the sound to begin and end your mindful breathing. By focusing on the sound of the bell as it fades, listening to it, following the sound as it gets softer and softer, you will notice that your mind becomes quieter. Your mind is busy listening to that sound as it fades, searching for hints of its tone. You can repeat this several times. The reason this activity works to help quiet your mind and move you toward a more focused awareness is because of the silence. The silence is actually more important than the sound of the bell. In a sense, you are really listening to silence, which helps your mind settle and focus. There are several online websites and apps that one can use to time one’s practices and they offer chimes.

Now, you are ready to read mindfully with purpose. As you read, you can use any practice you like to help you annotate or take notes. Consider also reading each word out loud, to hear the words in the air in order to focus on them and slow one’s reading process down a bit, to enter the text better. Try this if you don’t already do it. It may work for you.


Attribution

Inoue, Asao B. (2019). Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom. Perspectives on Writing. The WAC Clearinghouse; University Press of Colorado. https://wac.colostate.edu/books/perspectives/labor/

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 International License.

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Essentials for ENGL-121 by David Buck is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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