Contemplative Reading: Some definitions and examples*

 

Contemplative reading helps us practice being compassionate with ourselves and others. When we read contemplatively, we read with the aims of achieving sympathetic understanding of the text. We aim to see what the text can teach us. We are open to transformation.

Contemplative reading is both a skill we practice and a disposition we choose. We read contemplatively when we intentionally bring an attitude of curiosity and openness to texts.

Example: “I wonder what this means? I wonder why it is said this way? I have never thought about it that way before and I want to learn more about these ideas.”

Rather than: “I don’t know why I have to read this. This has nothing to teach me. This is not relevant to my life.”

We read contemplatively when we seek to find ways to connect with a text, to find both what is familiar and what is strange about it and to move into those spaces with inquisitive minds.

Example: “I don’t understand why this story has so much x in it. Let me see what I can learn about why and how this author or these characters have so much x, and why I am confused.”

Rather than: “I have no idea what this person is talking about and so can’t understand anything. I am giving up.”

We read contemplatively when we notice our own feelings and thoughts as they arise through reading a text and when we own them, rather than projecting them on to the text.

Example: “Wow, I am getting really angry/bored/happy/excited at this passage. What is it about me and my assumptions that is making me so angry/bored/happy/excited?

Rather than: “This text is boring/stupid/fun.”

Critical thinking and critical reading practices are essential for helping us become independent thinkers, for helping us discern rhetorical strategies so we may become informed and responsible citizens able to make our own choices about what is right and wrong, true or false, good or bad. Often, when we read critically, we are suspicious of the text or wary of what it is trying to say to us. We critique it, dissect it, and analyze it to find where we agree or disagree with its ideas and why.

Contemplative reading and writing complement critical thinking and reading. When we read contemplatively, we seek connection, communion, and understanding. We step into another person’s shoes and perspectives to better understand them and ourselves.

Contemplative reading and writing practices encourage us to explore our deeply held values, biases, and preferences so that we can move through and with them into compassionate engagement with the Other—be it a text, person, situation, or idea.

Contemplative reading is a practice within contemplative pedagogy, which, in my courses, has three aspects:

Meditative: Noticing, mindfulness, presence; moment-to-moment awareness of what is arising for us internally so that we may consciously act with what is before us rather than unconsciously react to or against what is before us.

Reflective: Exploring values, purpose, and questions of meaning; reflecting upon what we believe and why, noticing the relationships between our beliefs and actions, understanding our motives.

Active: Aligning behaviors with beliefs; bridging theory and practice; applying what we learn to a variety of circumstances beyond the classroom; practicing agency and receptivity.

*This blog post is a slightly modified version of a document I created for undergraduate students in two contemplative General education courses, which explore Creative Thought (“Curiosity, Playfulness, Creativity”) and Past & Present (“Curiosity, Perspective, and Shakespeare”)

 

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Curiosity & Creativity: Statement on Teaching

Last year I was asked to write a brief teaching philosophy in order to be considered for the university’s distinguished teaching award. Here’s what I sent:

It’s an exciting time to be part of higher education, to be in the Humanities, and to be a contemplative teacher and scholar. Higher Education leaders are championing the application of inter- and trans-disciplinary approaches to real-world problems. We also know that students need to feel the relevance and purpose of classroom experiences for education to be meaningful and valuable. Our own university is launching transformative, community-building initiatives that engage students and regional partners in collaborative experiences. What a time to be a passionate advocate for education’s role in promoting well-being and ethical action!

Thank you for this opportunity to share briefly two of the mindsets that have helped me experience lively and enriching encounters with our Plymouth State students over this past decade. I’m excited to see how curiosity, creativity, innovation, and service can drive our clusters-based approach in the coming years. As students learn how to trust themselves and to cultivate curiosity, wonder, and resilience, they can, upon graduation, craft deeply satisfying and rewarding lives for themselves and their communities.

While applying for tenure in 2009 I reviewed my course evaluations and noticed that students most often praised my teaching by citing my enthusiasm for the subject matter. I found this trend a bit disturbing since I had considered myself a practitioner of student-centered learning. These evaluations caused me to reflect: Is my teaching style actually all about me? Am I simply hoping that the sheer force of my own enthusiasm for literature could be contagious? And, most pressingly, would I be able to sustain my enthusiasm year after year, course after course, teaching similar kinds of things again and again? Student-centered, I determined, must become learner-driven.

That summer I explored the roots of my enthusiasm in order to nurture this strength and sustain it, which brought me to contemplative pedagogy. I’ve since discovered how to cultivate curiosity not just about the material but about the interesting, unique, and surprising individuals in class alongside me. And that, as they say, has made all the difference.

Curiosity drives Innovation

Once I think I know a thing, I no longer see it clearly. This is true with literary works, courses, people, and a variety of “taken for granted” assumptions. By keeping open the possibility that I can be surprised by a text, a student, or an assignment, I can feel genuine wonder and curiosity. Only then can I authentically learn to see new possibilities in my work and relationships. I model this disposition and cultivate it with my students as an explicit methodology. That way, together, we can learn to innovate and more deeply appreciate our time together. At any time, we can change courses, assignments, and we can change our minds.

For innovation to occur I have to let go of the idea of mastery– let go of control– and simply notice: What’s happening with this student? With this class? With this assignment? I then ask myself: What can I do to improve it? How can we do things not just differently but better? And then, I must act. So, too, must my students.

Stability encourages Creativity 

We must feel safe, supported, and encouraged if we are to make truly innovative changes in our lives and communities. While all sectors claim to value creativity, we—as individuals—are actually quite resistant to change and suspicious of the novel. It takes great courage to try something truly new. Fear of failing a class, losing a job, or looking foolish all hinder creativity.

When we tap into students’ intrinsic motivation and empower them to craft enriching and successful experiences for themselves and their peers, we can rely less and less on the “grade” as a motivator. Don’t get me wrong—I use rubrics; students earn grades; courses are rigorous. But often students do their best (i.e. most creative) work on the ungraded assignments.

I work hard to deserve student-trust by providing clear and consistent communication. And I’m finding that many students, when liberated from critique and fear of failure, respond by experimenting, innovating, taking risks, asking good questions, and helping one another more than they had when trying to “get it right,” “get a good grade” and “meet the teacher’s expectations.” They are truly creative, producing works and experiences I could never have anticipated.

I am honored by this committee’s request of a teaching philosophy and grateful for the opportunity to reflect on the evolution of my teaching and learning practices over the past eleven years at Plymouth State. From an assistant professor demonstrating “mastery” of the subject matter, to an associate professor experimenting with contemplative pedagogy, to a full professor who brings a “beginner’s mind” to every class experience, I’ve grown into a joyful, curious, and confident educator thanks to countless Plymouth State student, faculty, and staff mentors.

Thank you.

 

 

 

Reading, flow, and the joys of the English major

(I recently recovered this little piece I had written back in 2009 for English majors, before I knew about “contemplative pedagogy.”)

Much of the reading I do these days should be called “skimming.” I skim web pages looking for the main gist of an article, an answer to a specific question, or contact information. Many high school assignments actually trained me to do this kind of reading. For example, when I’d be assigned a chapter to read in a Social Studies textbook, I’d also be given a list of questions. By skimming for key words (i.e. “cotton gin”), I’d answer all of the questions correctly (“Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin.”). I did not read. I hunted and gathered. I am now an excellent and efficient skimmer of online information.

But when I read, really read, other stuff happens in my brain. I use my memory, remembering conversations or experiences I’ve had or other texts I’ve read. I use my imagination, forming new connections and wrestling with unique constructions of thought. Rather than myopically hunting for a fact to complete an assignment, my curious mind ranges freely among sentences, allowing the text to act upon me.

When my brain is active like this, really engaged in a text, I enter the state called “flow.” I don’t recognize time passing. I am completely absorbed. I am both out of my body (ek-stasis) and deeply rooted in my body at the same time. It is utterly delicious!

I have a theory that all English majors have at some point experienced flow when reading or writing. What draws them to this major, perhaps unconsciously, is the desire to tap into that feeling on a regular basis. We’re looking to recover that particular kind of pleasure that lies beyond aesthetics, that’s rooted in the activity of our brains. Is this true for you?

I find that when I’m restless or bored by reading, it’s because I haven’t tapped into my own curiosity and energy. When I mindlessly approach literature as though it were an online article or textbook—skimming—I deny myself the ecstatic experience of losing and finding myself in active reading. What a relief and joy it is for me to remember that all I need to do is close my door, tune into the book, and become lost in the mental aerobics literature inspires my mind to perform.

Accessing that flow, that ecstasy, is part of our homework as English majors. Aren’t we lucky? We aren’t required to skim textbook material; we are instead, each evening, invited to plug our minds into a rich text and begin exchanging information with it, stretching our abilities to comprehend, imagine, and create. Each hour we have the opportunity to be moved and utterly absorbed—we simply need to remember that this is the goal of our reading, our purpose as English majors.

And so I invite you to come to your reading with an awake mind, eager to be fired up, to remember, and to imagine. This kind of reading not only inspires us to take notes, develop ideas, and ask questions in class. It also trains our brains to recognize patterns, to synthesize parts into a whole. When we read well, we have the big picture in sight, and we rarely feel overwhelmed by and lost among details.

Commercials, web pages, and magazines target us by our age, gender, socio-economic class, and ethnicity. When we read these texts, we often encounter our own familiar version of reality reflected back to us. Literature is different. As English majors, we intentionally expose ourselves to texts that aren’t necessarily “meant” for us. Perhaps they were written a long time ago, or by someone on the other side of the world. As strong readers, we rejoice in the opportunity mingle with this “otherness.” Watch yourself when you next encounter a strange or difficult text. What do you do when you encounter such diversity? Do you neglect it? Run from it? Disconnect from it? Or, do you get curious about it?

I invite you to explore your own personal boundaries through strange and difficult texts. As you learn more about them, your own boundaries will shift. Your range of understanding will expand. You will get more confident and fearless in the face of the strange or difficult. Ignorance can feel pretty scary, but it’s temporary. We have the ability to activate our memories and imaginations to encounter difference with joyful curiosity. In fact, that’s our duty!

Active, alert reading that fires the memory and imagination can carry over into our lives and relationships. We can learn how to prioritize sentences and experiences, to linger on surprising phrases and people, to explore confusing concepts and situations.

We are so lucky! Our homework assignments have the capacity to be gateways to bliss. Are you up for the adventure?

“Advanced literacy is a specific intellectual skill and social habit that depends on a great many educational, cultural, and economic factors. As more Americans lose this capability, our nation becomes less informed, active, and independent-minded. These are not the qualities that a free, innovative, or productive society can afford to lose.”–  Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, The Boston Globe, April 10, 2005

Sept 18 Contemplative Communities Gathering

Plymouth, Nh area readers: Come learn about a Plymouth State University Cluster Project that foregrounds curiosity, kindness, justice, and mindfulness– Contemplative Communities!

Students, staff, teaching lecturerss, admins, and faculty are all welcome to attend this gathering. We will share space in support of the pursuit of joy & the reduction of suffering. You can learn about new courses, research opportunities, and community programming. All are welcome!

What: Contemplative Communities Gathering

When: Monday Sept 18th 3:30-4:30

Where: Museum of the White Mountains Open Lab

contemplative rocks

Interconnectedness: What’s happening at Plymouth State

With very little financial support from the University, we have launched a sturdy little Contemplative Communities cluster project up here at Plymouth State University, NH.

We (students, staff, faculty, community members) spent the spring and summer creating our Advisory Board, developing a Student Organization, proposing contemplative lab spaces, meeting graduate students, presenting at conferences, gathering mindfully, and designing courses.

What the university paid for was conference travel, so I’ll tell you a bit about that, first.

In April, two students and two alums presented with me on a panel entitled “Contemplative Education: Impacts, Outcomes, Transformations” at the 38th Annual Medieval and Renaissance Forum at Keene State College. Students synthesized course experiences, content, theories, and practices to deliver first-person accounts of transformative education in English and Medieval Studies. We have submitted proposals for publication… Fingers crossed!

forum

John Rodgers (’18), Rachael Ferranti (’12), Karolyn Kinane (Faculty), Lindsey DeRoche (’17), Jessica Eldridge (’16) at the 38th Annual Medieval and Renaissance Forum, Keene, NH

In June I participated in the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute in Garrison, NY.  The Institute included 115 participants from thirty two countries and six continents. What an honor to be a part of this experience! The Institute’s theme, “Intersubjectivity and Social Connectivity,” invited scientists, clinicians, philosophers, legal and economic experts, and others to address how we relate to ourselves, to others, and to community and strangers.

Sessions explored the science of implicit bias as well as how social and cultural histories shape individual and collective well-being. Most pressing for me were the new research findings on interconnectivity of mind, health, empathy, and compassion as well as the “efficacy” and “usefulness” of meditative practices.

Much of the epistemology, methodology, and pedagogy of modern Western institutions (corporate, medical, academic) rest on the ontological position that humans are isolated individuals. Such a perspective invisibly shapes our ethics. The Contemplative Communities Cluster Project allows the Plymouth State and broader community consider an alternative to the default ontological position—to consider interconnectedness.

As the Mind and Life Organization demonstrates, when we operate from an ontological position of interconnectedness, new possibilities emerge for scientific inquiry, social structures, and ethical systems. Neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, humanists, and contemplatives are amassing a generous body of work that demonstrates how humans co-create our experiences, how our environment co-creates our experiences, and the very real effects of this participatory sense-making.

In my next post I’ll offer some juicy details on our new Contemplative Approaches courses and our Student Organization. In the meantime, check out our webpage! If you would like to get in the loop to receive all of our updates & events, drop me an email and I will add you to our communications. If you’d like to stay peripherally abreast, join our Facebook Group and “like” our Facebook page.

 

 

Shifting the Ethos of Busy-ness

When someone casually asks you “How are you?” how do you respond? Words can transform lived experience and one small shift can ripple out to a community.

Many times when I briefly ask people how they’re doing, they’ll answer with “Super busy—tons of grading to do” or “So stressed out—Jenny has practice every night this week.” Or they’ll give me an incredulous look—like we’re both in over our heads—and tell me they’re “Okay.” This has happened with students, colleagues, and friends.

Several years ago I examined my relationship to busy-ness and detected the ways that my sense of self was entangled with how much I “had to do.” The entanglement was two-fold: I felt like if I wasn’t busy, I wasn’t important. And I also believed that other people would judge me as lazy if I did not tell them that I, like them, felt stressed.

I’ve started asking students about the various replies to the casual question “How are you?” and we’ve anecdotally confirmed that we sometimes perform stress for each other and unnecessarily create the expectation of busy-ness for ourselves and each other.

Last year an advisee told me she generally felt okay but that when friends around her said they were freaking out with busy-ness, she began to wonder if she had forgotten something and she’d become worried and anxious at her own lack of stress.

In an attempt to shift this culture I developed a small exercise for one of my classes: We looked at our own identity in relation to “busyness;” we practiced small moments of gratitude;  we vowed to give other people permission to be “doing well.”

Here is the exercise in a nutshell:

When someone asks casually, “How are you?” resist the urge to perform stress and busy-ness. This does not mean you have to lie or slap a fake happy face on a miserable day. Instead, choose which moment of your day you will share.

This takes noticing.

Throughout the day, notice opportunities for gratitude and then share those. Sure I may have a ton of papers to grade, but I also noticed a new bird in my yard. Sure my car is in the shop again, but I also had a great conversation with my sister who lives in another state.

So when someone asks “How are you?” I can choose to tell them about all of the Very Important Work that I Have to Do and contribute to the Stress Olympics, or I can say I’m “Doing well” and them about the great meal I just had or the sweet walk I just took.

Speaking these very true words is like spell-casting. They transform my relationship to my own life and they give my interlocutor permission to also be “doing well.”

I don’t want to ignore or downplay the very real struggles with stress and anxiety many of us have. Nor do I encourage you to avoid ever discussing the painful and difficult things we all experience.

But rather, once in a while, especially with casual acquaintances, I’d ask us to consider sharing a moment of gratitude and giving our colleagues a priceless gift: permission to be “doing well.”

Permission to Fail: Clusters and a Leap of Faith

How do we craft spaces where creativity can thrive? In my new Writing and the Creative Process class this semester we have been talking a lot about giving people “permission to fail.” That is, if we’re going to take the risk of trying something new, of being truly “creative,” we need to know that our evaluators, teachers, managers, and collaborators have meaningfully given us this permission.

This course has become an elegant microcosm for me of Plymouth State University’s massive shift to a clusters-based approach to teaching, learning, and service. In order for me to thrive in this environment, which values collaboration, innovation, and interdisciplinary, I need to take a leap of faith. I need to believe that I actually do have permission to fail. And I genuinely need to offer that permission to my students. And this means I need to take a leap of faith and encourage such leaps in others.

After all, I have applied for and received funding. I need to offer “deliverables” at some point, justifying my university’s investments. Students are often taking on significant debt and investing valuable time to experience these courses. What if I fail?

What if students don’t participate? What if colleagues don’t follow through? What if failure is not an option? What if, what if, what if? my anxiety demands.

A colleague of mine shared this Slate.com article with me that describes how we—in a variety of sectors—claim to value creativity while actively stifling it. A sobering thought.

I don’t think I could undertake a Contemplative Communities Cluster Project or “open” my Creative Process class without my practice. Years of grooming in higher education have taught me that failure is not an option. My own ego compounded with the significant role that course evaluations play in promotion and tenure have made me reticent to try new things that might… well… fail.

But my practice reminds me to see situations with fresh eyes, with a beginner’s mind. My practice encourages me to trust what people say, to believe that transformational change is possible for myself, my students, and my university.

And so I leap. I trust that my project collaborators will be honest with me about their commitments and tasks. I trust that my evaluators know the valuable role failure plays in innovation. I trust that my students will ask, try, speak up, and, perhaps most importantly, trust me.