First evening of contemplative pedagogy retreat

Our retreat officially began at 6 p.m. tonight but we were encouraged to arrive early to enjoy the beauties and bounties of Waterville Valley. Gradually, from 5-6, ten of us convened in a spacious, windowed, second story room at the Best Western, chatted, introduced ourselves, and in some cases got reacquainted.  It seems we have an interesting mix of folks from a variety of fields and interests—campus ministry, nursing, management, IT, English, etc.

While I’m treating this experience as a retreat,  it’s all being run through our graduate program in Educational Leadership, Learning and Curriculum as a course entitled “Contemplative Practices in Higher Education: Reflection and Questions of Meaning” and so it meets the requirements of a few different degree program tracks. Some of us are currently faculty, others are soon to be.

It’s late, and we start early tomorrow, so I’ll keep this brief and skip the narrative framing to give you a sense of what we did this evening and at the end you can find some meat and potatoes (course readings and description). J

We began with a working definition of contemplative education. I’m struggling to find the original author, though this definition is all over the internet and I see it attributed to both the ACMHE and Naropa. Either way, here it is: “A philosophy of higher education that infuses learning with the experience of awareness, insight, and compassion for oneself and others via the practice of meditation and contemplative disciplines.”

Nancy, our facilitator for the evening, invited us to focus on the cultivation of awareness, insight, and compassion for ourselves. She then shared an anecdote about Gandhi running for a train and losing a sandal. Still running for the train, he quickly tossed off his other sandal. When asked why, he replied that one sandal would do him no good, and one sandal found on the platform would do no one any good. But someone who found the pair would benefit from the sandals. “Now,” Nancy probed, “imagine having that kind of presence of mind?” Running for a train and yet instantly thinking about how to do the greatest good with a surprise event…. Yeah—I want to be that kind of teacher. And person.

We then worked through a series of four 2-minute breathing meditations that helped to illustrate how changing our focus (whether we’re noticing our own breath, counting our inhales/exhales, or watching another person breathe) changed our perception of time and experience. For each exercise, my experience of the 2 minutes was radically different. Sometimes it felt longer; sometimes briefer. Sometimes I noticed the clock ticking; sometimes I was utterly absorbed. I think Nancy said these exercises came from Jack Kornfield.

After watching a 20-minute interview with Kornfield, we had a lively discussion about intuition, worldview, awareness, and presence. What is intuition? We’re all coming from all over the place, and so for some it is God. For some it is the transpersonal realm. I’m probably annoying in my habit (which I think is being the devil’s advocate but which might just be, well, annoying) of asking questions from the position of empiricism, but I wanted to know how intuition is different from deduction or analysis based on experience. Or how it’s similar to talent. Or when its projection. I wrote down something Kathleen said: “Perhaps one aspect of intuition is an empathy that comes from self-awareness.” We all chatted so much we ran out of time and were unable to do the forgiveness meditation/exercise Nancy had planned to close our evening of self-work, but we did get our own graph notebooks, post-it notes, and boxes of crayons and colored pencils so I’m very excited to bust them out tomorrow.

Our homework tonight is to journal about our questions and goals for the weekend and to further develop our ideas about space. (Kathleen had asked us in an email prior to our meeting “Something to think about before arriving, aside from the readings, is the concept of spaces. Spaces for learning, be they physical or simply “gaps” in time, space between sounds. What are your favorite spaces? Do you find yourself creating spaces, or do you just find yourself in them? From space, how do things appear?)

So, I gotta go and get that done before breakfast tomorrow at 8 a.m. and session at 9!

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Some of the practical info about the retreat:

Assigned pre-reading in preparation for the weekend:

Hill, Clifford, Ed. (2006). Teachers College Record, Special Issue on Contemplative Practices and Education. (Kindle Edition)

Langer, Ellen J. (1998). The power of mindful learning. Da Capo Press, Perseus Books.

O’Reilley, Mary Rose. (1998). Radical presence: Teaching as contemplative practice. Heinemann Press.

Palmer, Parker. J. and Arthur Zajonc. (2010). The heart of higher education: A call to renewal. Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education.

 Course overview: This Special Topics in Higher Education course is concerned with considering and experiencing Contemplative Practices that are appropriate in higher education settings. A number of PSU faculty members from various departments who have been exploring the nature of contemplative and integral theories as applied to education will engage in this course. The ESSENTIAL QUESTION for this particular offering is:  How can mindfulness influence the practices of teaching and learning? This course will engage students in reading, reflection, collaborative inquiry and the development of an action plan for the integration of learning into a future course or workshop. This course encourages students to consider how their teaching and learning is, or might be, influenced by mindfulness, and the ways they, and their own students, might be searching for meaning through the content of courses as well as the higher education experience.

I’ll post more tomorrow as our schedule develops. G’nite!

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