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Mindful classics: an ancient approach to wellbeing to support modern learners

22 April 2021

3 minutes to read

Mindful classics: an ancient approach to wellbeing to support modern learners

As the Covid-19 pandemic has progressed, mental health has become almost as much of a concern as physical health. Uncertainty and long-term isolation have been identified as particular threats to overall wellbeing – with mindfulness often touted as a useful antidote.

As it happens, mindfulness is a core element of the Education Incubator project led by Dr Irene Salvo (Classics and Ancient History). When Dr Salvo first applied for a fellowship to support her work, she had no way of knowing that a pandemic was just around the corner. It was just a coincidence, then, that she was in a unique position to support Classics and Ancient History students through her project ‘Mindful Classics: Embedding Contemplative Pedagogy Into the Study of Antiquity.’

Contemplative pedagogy is an educational philosophy that values each student’s embodied, lived experience. It falls within the broad camp of humanism, an approach that overtly acknowledges that students are human beings with a range of basic needs (like health, security, a feeling of belonging, and self-esteem) that need to be addressed before learners can properly focus on their studies.

A statue of famous stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius

A statue of Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius

Teachers who take a contemplative pedagogic approach encourage students to connect with their own inner selves and recognise the subjective expertise they have amassed through lived experience; this can be achieved by actively being more aware, attentive, and reflective. While this may not sound like the typical (more objective) approach to learning that typically characterises higher education, research shows that it can be a powerful way to foster equanimity, promote interpersonal skills, support inclusivity, and facilitate deep learning.

Through Dr Salvo’s project, Classics and Ancient History undergraduates are welcomed into a focus group that meets weekly. There, they read ancient texts – particularly those written by Stoics such as Seneca and Marcus Aurelius – and consider how these millennia-old ideas are relevant in modern times.

These ancient philosophers strove to answer the basic question: ‘What is a good life – and how can I live one?’ To do this, they explored issues such as managing interpersonal relationships, tackling challenging emotions, and, yes, dealing with poor health and even mortality. Unsurprisingly, these musings still strike a chord today.

To support students in undertaking these contemplations, Dr Salvo weaves mindfulness activities through the sessions. Classics and Ancient History at Exeter has an expertise on this theme since it hosts the Modern Stoicism project, a unique collaboration between psychotherapists and academic experts on ancient philosophy.

Dr Salvo has also partnered with mindfulness experts from across the University of Exeter to provide special guest sessions at which students could hear about different approaches to mindfulness. These experts have included Jerry Fox, Emma Thom, and Kay Octigan of the Mood Disorders Centre’s AccEPT Clinic; Sarah Lane at Wellbeing Services; and Buddhist Chaplain John Danversfrom the Multifaith Chaplaincy. Mindfulness techniques are pitched as being useful not just within focus group meetings, but in everyday life too, and students are encouraged to practise them as a sort of informal ‘homework’ assignment.

During the third national lockdown from January to March 2021, additional activities included The Classic Life of Pets – staff and students pet meet and greet; a monthly pet therapy session to take advantage of students living with household pets; a book club on self-help readings; and a Netflix Headspace Watch Party on how to start meditating.

In the future, Dr Salvo is looking forward to hosting mindfulness events for colleagues from other departments, both to introduce them to the concept of contemplative pedagogy and to present suggestions for accessible mindfulness techniques in the classroom that can more easily be incorporated into a busy academic schedule. She is also hoping to expand her focus to other types of inspirational text, including poetry.

Supporting her in these endeavours, and integral to the project as a whole, are student co-collaborators Hannah Biddle, Róisín Roye, and Sara Vazquez Garcia, and members of the Advisory Committee: Dr Katherine Earnshaw, Dr Gabriele Galluzzo, Dr Sharon Marshall, Professor Chris Gill, Professor Louise Lawrence, Professor Giovanna Colombetti, Dr Inmaculada Adarves-Yorno, Professor Barney Dunn, Emma Thom, and Sarah Lane.

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Dr Caitlin KightDr Irene Salvo
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