«5th Annual Summer Session on Contemplative Curriculum Development August 9 – 14, 2009 Report by Beth Wadham, Academic Program Associate After five ...»
5th Annual Summer Session on Contemplative Curriculum Development
August 9 – 14, 2009
Report by Beth Wadham, Academic Program Associate
After five years, this gathering of
educators in August at Smith College
has become an established way to
demonstrate how satisfying it can be
for professors to work across
disciplines to explore the role of
contemplative practice in their
courses. This year, faculty from
Economics, Chemistry, Physics, Law,
Art History and Architecture worked
with the group of mostly English and writing professors to their mutual benefit. Participants agreed that there is a “contemplative heart” of each discipline that can be shared with all.
In welcoming the participants, Arthur Zajonc remarked that “each one of us is an educator with our own competencies and specializations, and wants to prepare students in deeply responsible way, but we often feel we miss half the potential.
Education has developed techniques over thousands of years to develop the exterior abilities of the student; we come together this week to give care and intention to the development of the interior.” This “complementary curriculum,” he proposed, can offer great benefits, and has practical applications in many fields, including medicine (MBSR), technology (Google’s SIY course) and the military (the Center’s work with resilience for military caregivers). We deprive ourselves, he suggested, of half the resources available when our solutions to problems fail to plumb our own depths of insight and concern. In addressing the pressing issues of our time, these partial responses are inadequate.
During the week ahead, educators explored universals that apply across curricula, as well as practices designed for particular disciplines, in the interest of expanding the range of their students’ flourishing capacities. In addition, while practicing, learning, and working together, they built the resources of a community that would sustain them in their home institutions in the future.
At the close of the opening circle of introductions, Mirabai Bush shared Wendell Berry’s poem, “The Wild Geese,” setting the tone for what was revealed over the course of the time together.
The Wild Geese Horseback on Sunday morning, harvest over, we taste persimmon and wild grape, sharp sweet of summer's end. In time's maze over the fall fields, we name names that went west from here, names that rest on grav
Arthur Zajonc, the Center’s Academic Program Director and Professor of Physics at Amherst College, shared the design principles for two courses he’s taught along with a sequence of practices, offering a rationale and example for each. Zajonc has been developing contemplative pedagogy and contemplative epistemology over the past 20 years in the interest of expanding our view of knowing to include the contemplative dimension. A growing body of research supports these pedagogical interventions. The time, Zajonc urges, has arrived to integrate the inner and outer dimensions of education.
At first, this consists of introducing what he calls “general practices,” which establish attention, equanimity, and emotional stability, and support the discovery of relationships and the students’ ability to sustain contradictions. General practices cultivate capacities that have wide application to learning across curricula.
The two courses he discussed, “Eros and Insight” and “Science and Spirituality,” are freshman seminars that introduce students to intellectual inquiry at Amherst. In the first week, Zajonc also introduces them to the contemplative, using a passage from Thoreau which offers an invitation to silence, wakefulness, and the poetic and divine life. Then Zajonc gives an assignment to be silent, to cultivate silence for a short time, to simply observe what happens, and to write three drafts characterizing the experience.
In the second week, he introduces concentration exercises, starting with something simple, like a paper clip. The students look closely at the object, and then imagine it, picturing it in their minds. They imagine its manufacture, function, everything having to do with it.
In the third week, they explore empathy and afterimage, moving between focused and open attention, first focusing on a sense object, such as the sound of a bell, and then letting it resound in memory. As the resounding fades, they move into a state of open awareness: letting go, not seeking, and not expecting. Then the exercise can proceed to a further stage of letting come, holding open a space for thoughts to arise from non-habitual sources.
Zajonc is committed to methods such as these. He finds they offer a “deep epistemology” which serves the core mission of education and cultivate and recognize the importance of the student’s responses. His experience has shown that students’ engagement with the subject of their refined attention, whether it be an organism, poem or social problem, is heightened through these means and that when students develop a feeling for the object of study, their inquiries can lead to contemplative insights.
The group was invited to experience firsthand the steps Zajonc developed as a contemplative method. First, he asks his students to concentrate on the “outer phenomenology” of the subject of inquiry, for example the outward behavior, speech and posture of an autistic child, and to build up as clear and accurate an objective description as possible. Then, they’re asked to focus on the “inner phenomenology.” Using the same example, one can imagine the inner experience, feeling, and mood of the autistic child.
After writing a short paragraph describing what is observed from outer and inner perspectives, the next step is to develop a poetic line or image that represents the question at the center of the inquiry. This line or image then becomes the focus of attention like the bell sound in the introductory exercises. After a period of focused attention on the language or image, students can move between focused and open awareness, allowing for new perceptions or insights to come. This “living back and forth” with a well-formulated question, Zajonc finds, can nearly always be relied upon to reveal something fresh. He finds that Goethe’s phrase, “a delicate empiricism,” describes this approach, which gathers information and impressions from an intimate stance, and allows for a viewpoint that “makes itself utterly identical with what is observed.” Practical Approaches to the Impractical; Impractical Approaches to the Practical Michelle Francl, Professor of Chemistry at Bryn Mawr College and 2008 Contemplative Practice Fellow, began her presentation on science and contemplative practice with
the questions: “Is contemplative science an oxymoron? Or isn’t that what scientists do:
Francl personally identifies with a monastic (Ignatian) foundation for what she does in her classroom and for her, practice is not distinct from life. She writes for Nature magazine, her church paper, and has prayed with a monastic community in Villanova for 25 years. During her recent sabbatical year she attended what she calls “Jesuit boot camp,” where she was alone with Ignatian practice, just self and contemplation.
Twice daily, as part of an “examine” practice, she engaged in reflection on what had happened and on her desire for the future. This tradition now finds its expression in her teaching, as she sets her intentions for lessons, checks in on what actually happened, and then sets new intentions.
Her inclusion of a “stillness practice” with her students to begin class cultivates the patience, attention and carefulness she sees as critical for the development of scientists. She introduces other practices, such as lexio divina and “beholding” to extend the student’s ways of seeing and perceiving verbal and visual information. She refers to Gerald Holton’s The Scientific Imagination (Harvard: 1998), which looks at how the discoveries of Fermi, Heisenberg and Oppenheimer were made. It describes the “unforced pace” of their research, despite the idea that science is often characterized by frantic progress.
Francl has even developed contemplative assessment measures that reward skillful reflection as well as accurate results. For example, if students are able to identify their own errors, and articulate how they know they’re wrong, she will award them some of the points lost for the mistakes. To close, she shared with the group a method she uses to extend her students’ capacities for problem solving by having them attempt to find a solutions to those for which they are completely unprepared. To do this, she suggests, as Natalie Goldberg has written, they need to find the “bones” of the problem and allow this to inform their approach. To the group before her, she posed the question, “What is the circumference of the earth?” and gave us four minutes to respond. Many methods were employed, some effective, some less so, but no one left the page blank. The experience of trying, however one could, left the group engaged and appreciative of the energy that’s generated from moving into the unknown, as Michelle illustrated with a slide of her son jumping from a cliff to the water below, taking the leap.
This afternoon presentation, about inviting students to see, was preceded by an announcement that a meteor shower would be visible later that evening. So during Mirabai’s introduction of Jody Ziegler, professor of Visual Arts and Art History at Holy Cross College, she referred to Ziegler as “our own personal meteor shower.” Ziegler, who was one of the Center’s first Contemplative Practice Fellows (1997), has taught at every one of the five Summer Sessions, returning regularly, trailing her sparkling enthusiasm wherever she goes.
From a presentation by an Art Historian, one might well expect the talk to show images of art and architecture, but Ziegler did not use slides. Instead, she brought a series of questions: “Why are we here? Why undertake this work? What do I desire?
What is this work?” She wanted to explore the distinctions between teaching contemplatively, teaching contemplative practice, and teaching about contemplation, and assert that bringing contemplative practice to higher education is a public declaration that “the inner life matters.” For her, contemplative pedagogy has to do with cultivating her students’ ability to see, or “behold,” the objects of their studies. This means that she will teach less but they will know more. She doesn’t teach them meditation, yoga or Tai Chi, but she teaches from within her own practice and out of her grounding in her discipline. Ziegler characterizes contemplative pedagogy as the thread that winds between teachers and students and encourages educators to ask themselves, “What is the one thing I want the students to have at the end of the course?” For her, her desire for her students to love art, live with awareness, and see themselves and their world more clearly is motivated by an “objective of justice” that is rooted in an appreciation of beauty.
While she recognizes that beauty is a loaded concept, and that its relationship to truth and justice has been the topic of philosophical quests at least since the Pre-Socratics, she finds that if she can wake her students to seeing beauty, to developing the organs to perceive it, they can discover their own moral compasses. Through attending to and developing a feeling for great works of art, they become more interested and intimate with them, and they begin to love what they know.
Repetition is such a strong feature of her pedagogy that one might say that establishing this connection between the student and the work of art is nearly ritually induced. The assignment, to go at the same time to the same place each day to sit before the same painting and just look, focuses their attention again and again. By noticing the changes in the way they see the painting, they also notice changes in themselves. Once they have this experience, from within, of observing the impermanence of their own preconceptions and prejudices, they have, Ziegler believes, the foundation of an ethical awareness, the beginning of an ethical stance.
They may or may not be ready for meditation, yoga, or other traditional practices, but, Ziegler finds, they can learn to see. And their attentiveness leads to care and the capacity to focus on what’s valuable in art, nature, and human life and orients their centrifugal energies toward making a better world for everyone.
Mindfulness Meditation and the Brain
Attention is described as consisting of three functionally distinct cognitive networks: alerting, which is a vigilant state of preparedness; orienting, which allows us to select information from sets of possible sensory data; and conflict monitoring, or “executive functioning,” which is the ability to prioritize among competing thoughts, feelings and responses. Mindfulness trainings resulted in improvements in all three networks (Jha et al. 2007).
Subjects in the studies received instruction in insight (Vipassana) meditation and practiced intensively for three months. Alerting, orienting, and conflict monitoring can be evaluated by “attentional blink,” a test which presents new information that is typically undetectable in a predictable series. Experienced practitioners more often detected the new target than those without practice.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), which reveals the function (blood flow) and structure (matter, cell-bodies, and synapses) of the brain also reveals functional correlates of meditation. Hoelzel tested conflict monitoring using MRI, comparing 15 meditators and non-meditatiors, and observed that the anterior cingulated cortex, which is responsible for keeping on task, showed greater activation in the meditators.
Emotion regulation has been studied using qualitative interviews, self-reports and physiological tests. Participants with mindfulness meditation experience showed a diminished startle response from aversive stimuli (Zeidler 2007), decreased emotional reactivity and less interference from negative images and tones (Otner et al 2007).