Learning Deeply

“Contemplative Pedagogy” – a high-falutin’ term, no?  In low-falutin’ language, it’s about using meditation to help people learn.

I just spent a week learning about it (contemplatively) at a conference at Smith College in Massachusetts, held by the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.  The main speaker was Arthur Zajonc (pronounced Zi-ence), formerly professor of physics at Amherst College.  He’s the co-author with Parker Palmer of the recent book, The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal.  I found it an inspiring, lyrically-written book about the need to transform universities into places where people really learn and grow into their full humanity, rather than simply succeed at regurgitating information.  The book is a call to contemplation as a way to enter deeply into the subjects of study.  The most creative academic work ultimately depends on what Goethe, the German philosopher-poet of the 18th century, called “gentle empiricism”: the student beholds the subject on its own terms, with appreciation and concentration.

I discovered the national movement for contemplative pedagogy while listening to Krista Tippett’s “On Being” radio show on NPR a few months ago.  Her interview with Zajonc thrilled me with the prospect that this approach could spread at the university where I work.  I had read a book by Zajonc over a decade ago - Catching the Light: The Entwined History of Light and Mind.  It was an engaging account of the human experience of light through human history.  Here was a physicist with a strong interest in the subjective side of a natural phenomenon.  So I was delighted to discover that he was a leader in the effort to introduce university and college teachers to ways that they could employ meditation in all kinds of classroom settings.

There are many forms of contemplative practice being used to enhance learning.  Some professors, like myself, teach mindfulness meditation in the classroom – so that students can relax, be aware of their thoughts and feelings, be fully present in the moment, and thus more receptive to what is happening in the class.  Other methods are much more subtle, but have the same intent.  In physics class, teaching about electromagnetic spectra, Zajonc first shows slides of various spectra to the students and gives them quiet time to look at them carefully.  Then he asks for their observations.  Only then does he introduce the theory that explains the data.  This engages the students with the scientific observations, challenges them to find patterns, and thus enables them to more deeply apprehend the theory.

A teacher of geometry displays three long lines intersecting to make a triangle.  Students stare for a while at this image, then close their eyes and hold the image in their minds – and are asked to extend the lines to infinity, and to move the lines around while maintaining the three points of contact.  Then they release attention to this image, to discover whatever “echo” follows.  One result of this exercise is an awareness that a triangle is not a shape.  It’s a set of relationships that can exist even in four, five, or more dimensions – awakening the student to the field of multi-dimensional geometry.  The teacher need not tell the students that this exercise is based on a Buddhist meditation practice of focusing attention on an object, and then releasing attention to that object, to open up awareness of what is around and beyond it.

An economics professor described the exercise he gave to his students in order to introduce them to the principle of economic self-interest.  First he asked them to write down how many of the course readings they actually wanted to read.  Then he asked them to write down how many of those readings they would commit to reading.  Then he spoke more about economic self-interest.  Toward the end of the class, he asked the students to write down how many of the readings they had committed to read they would actually read.  Of course, the three lists were different for almost all the students.  This illustrated to them how complex it is to determine one’s own self-interest, much less to measure how others will act in their own interests.  In the process, it led them to look deeply within and contemplate their own selfhood.

The conference was held just a few miles away from the home of my closest friend from childhood, Bruce Urbschat.  He tagged along with me for one of Zajonc’s lectures, and was inspired to take these practices to his office.  He runs a computer system for the New England power grid.  It’s a high-stress work environment.  I look forward to hearing how Bruce makes use of contemplative methods in convening meetings of his programmers in order to elevate their moods, concentrate their minds, and open themselves to higher levels of creativity and comprehension.  These techniques can be used in many settings to enhance work and learning.

Several of us at the conference shared a concern that meditation practices were being uprooted from their sources in the great religious and philosophical traditions of the world, and reduced to simplistic techniques.  But at the same time, all of us understand that this is necessary in order to make use of these practices in secular university settings.  We hope that the “denatured” practices will be employed in a way that introduces them, without delving into great detail, to the sources from which they are derived.  On their own, students then can move from elementary practices to the more sophisticated forms of the spiritual traditions.

In the biblical book of Ezekiel, chapter 3, God presents the prophet with a scroll.  “He said to me, O mortal, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat.  He said to me, Mortal, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it. Then I ate it; and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey.”  In mythical language, this passage illustrates the difference between memorizing information and really “taking it in”.  The scroll wasn’t just something the prophet knew about.  The scroll became part of him.  “Imagination is a very high sort of seeing, which does not come by study, but by the intellect being where and what it sees,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson, quoted in Zajonc and Palmer’s book.

Any of you, dear “musings” readers, who would like to share contemplative or meditative practices you’ve used in work or teaching, please pass them on to me to share with others!


Website: JIMBURKLO.COM    Weblog: MUSINGS    Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
See my GUIDE to my books, “musings”, and other writings
Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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