Contemplative Education

I recently attended a regional meeting of the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education.  Simply put, it’s an organization of college professors that incorporate contemplative practice in their classes.  The conference was very diverse – with people from the arts, social sciences, activist programs, and even a few scientists.  Some talks were detailing success stories, others were participatory and demonstrated specific contemplative practices to use, still others were theoretical and visionary.

Let me back up and explain what I’ve learned about this thing: contemplative education.  First, a quote:

“The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. . . An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence” 

-William James, 1890

If you believe this, then maybe you’ll believe a second one:

“Universities have forgotten their larger educational role for college students. They succeed, better than ever, as creators and repositories of knowledge. But they have forgotten that the fundamental job of undergraduate education is… to help them grow up, to learn who they are, to search for a larger purpose for their lives, and to leave college as better human beings. So totally has the goal of scholarly excellence overshadowed universities’ educational role that they have forgotten that the two need not be in conflict.”

-Harry R. Lewis, former dean of Harvard College

If you believe the first and second quotes, and you care about teaching, then you might start to wonder if there’s a way to develop “the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention,” for example.  There’s a word for this.  Focus.   And there’s a way to become more focused.  Meditate.

If a technique for becoming more “focused” seems like a good idea to you, something worth looking into, but maybe needing some scientific grounding to be more appealing, well, guess what?  You’re living in the right decade.  In recent years, there have been dozens of scientific studies – neuroscience, psychology, health care, education – more or less confirming the claims of meditators.  These (secular and non-secular) meditators base their techniques in millenia-old wisdom traditions from around the world.  Here is one link to a list of research articles and books.  Here is a link to a review of research that pertains specifically to the benefits that meditation brings to a college classroom.

This is not sketchy science.  This is, for example, recurring 5-day workshops hosted in India by the Dalai Lama, bringing together Buddhist scholars and Nobel-prize-winning scientists like (current US Secretary of Energy) Steven Chu.  This is, for example, panel discussions at MIT and Stanford, with thousands of academics attending.  If you believe in global warming, you should believe in the benefits of a meditation practice.

Increased focus is just one of these “proven” benefits of meditation.  Prior to the act of refocusing attention is the act of noticing when it wanders – this is called mindfulness.  There are meditation techniques that improve mindfulness, and then there are meditation techniques that use that mindfulness to improve focus and concentration.  The same techniques will help you to be aware of and in control of emotions (like stress).  And then there are techniques to go deeper into the objects of attention, and for example cultivate curiosity, creativity, open-mindedness.  And there are techniques to foster concern and compassion for those around you.

The teachers at the conference had been using meditation in their classes, with some subset of these “goals” in mind.  As I said, there were many success stories told – coming from chemists, physicists, law teachers, as well as art and social science teachers.  (Here are some syllabi used, in a range of disciplines.)  But many of them have also experimented with other “contemplative practices” – things like contemplative movement or deep listening.  Here is a page with a helpful diagram of the diversity of contemplative practices, and some info about many of them

The post up until now has been discussing a teaching pedagogy, one that I think is fascinating and holds a lot of potential, and I’ll be experimenting with in the near future.  But this blog is supposed to be about research, not teaching.

All the benefits of meditation – greater awareness, focus, balance of mind, insight, creativity, interpersonal communication (and more!) – are yours for the taking, IF you’re willing to establish a personal contemplative practice.  I say this from personal experience, and with the above research articles as empirical evidence.  If you don’t like sitting meditation, then look into one of the other contemplative practices.

I’ve heard two nice analogies for the role meditation might play in a balanced life.

One is hygienic.  You keep your body clean, so you should keep your mind clean.  You nourish and exercise your body, so you should nourish and exercise your mind.  Meditation is a way of clearing out the clutter, of giving wholesome food to your mind and letting it go for a quiet walk outside.

The second is more scientific.  In order to perform experiments, a chemist needs a lab with the right tools.  The untrained mind is unwieldy – easily distracted, prone to dullness, never still but always jittery and burdened.  Meditation cultivates your mind as a tool – steadies it, sharpens it, gives you practice in controlling it.  Of course, traditionally the purpose of this was to allow meditators to go deeper into the nature of reality, in order to find the most universal truths and embrace the world with the most expansive compassion.  But you can use it to do better math, too.

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