Narnia, Emerson, and “Thin Places”

When a student asked me to write about one book that has impacted my life, I wrote this.

What would you write about?

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Events for Spring 2017

Plymouth State University’s Contemplative Education Group has a few initiatives underway as well as our usual slate of events.

First, university-wide revisions to General Education may allow groupings of courses to carry micro-credentials. We are looking to “bundle” the existing courses that use contemplative approaches and also to develop new courses.

Second, we will be re-tooling our Contemplative Communities project, which involves partnership with the Center for Active Living and Healthy Communities.  Stay tuned!

For now, here are some opportunities to get involved.

  • Meditation Mondays: Frost Commons 12:15-12:30 p.m. every Monday through May 15th. Join us as we start the week by gathering for a few minutes in silence. All are welcome!
  • Reading Group: Frost Commons 3:30-4:30 last Tuesday of every month (Feb 28, March 28, April 25) We will discuss articles from the latest Journal of Contemplative Inquiry, which features contemplative educational practices in Law, the Sciences, Technology, Environmental Studies, and Writing.
  • Ed.D and M.Ed. course: Look for HD/EN “Special Topics: Contemplative Inquiry and Practice in Higher Education” to be offered June/July 2017 in online and residency format (Waterville Valley).
  • Staying in touch: Plymouth State members can join the Contemplative Education Group in Yammer or in Outlook Mail Groups, both available through Microsoft 365. There you can find files and past messages.

A Note on Yoga

Contemplative practices come in all shapes and sizes. I’ve turned to and engaged many of them– particularly journaling, meditation, dance, and ritual. But yoga has been “my practice” for over a decade. And it has shaped my life and lived experience in ways not always touted by mass-media.

I call the habit that yoga developed in me “notice, breathe, choose.” Due to this habit, I’m more aware of decisions I make. I have better emotional regulation than I did ten years ago. The incessant brain-chatter—a non-stop internal narrative I lived with for decades—has ceased.

Because I tend to both live in my head and get caught up in other people’s energy, I can lose track of my own desires and miss cues from my body and mind. A yoga practice has trained my mind to notice: to observe passively without narrative or judgement. It has trained me to breathe: to check in with my body to notice where the struggle is. And it has given me permission to choose whether to move towards challenge or to back away.

Initially I had been drawn to physically challenging, vigorous yoga classes. Yes, these experiences increased my strength, flexibility and balance. But, these classes (unexpectedly) introduced me to my ego, which took pride in staying in poses a long time, in my ability to push my edges and boundaries.

Once I noticed myself pushing on the mat, I discovered the persistent tendency I had for moving towards challenge in other realms of my life. This practice helped me see how the type-A, mildly competitive tendencies that were playing out in the yoga practice were also causing all kinds of unnecessary stress in my work-life. I discovered the choice to stop. And I did.

So now I don’t find myself deep in spirals of frustration or anger nearly as often as I used to. I notice sooner—“Uh oh, something’s happening!” I check in with my breath. This could mean taking a three-second pause or a three-day reflection period. When I’m ready, I reclaim my agency and choose. Do I want to move towards this challenge? Or is it time to step away?

As to quieting the monkey-mind: The practice of again and again recalling a wandering mind works. In those early yoga classes I’d be in downward-facing dog pose, but I wasn’t doing yoga. I was making a shopping list, planning the next article, constructing counter-arguments to a recent nasty conversation… My body was on the mat but my mind was in the past or the future.

We all have our own reasons for fleeing from the present moment, for staying disembodied, for keeping the mind entangled in the past or future. For me, my ongoing inner-narrative reassured me that I was smart and important.

So how did I drop that story? Practice! It really is like training a puppy. Eventually, if you’re diligent, they stop peeing in the house! Eventually, my mind became a tool I could use rather than something that distracted me and stressed me out. 🙂

In yogic philosophy, the human experience is simply and elegantly the interplay of energy and consciousness. In daily life I sometimes find my energy and consciousness split or divided, each engaged with its own task: I’m driving and talking. Eating and scrolling.

The physical practice of hatha yoga is one way for my energy and consciousness to be in the same place at the same time. It’s a feeling beyond description. If I had to describe it, I’d say it feels like being fully alive.

Experience precedes meaning

From the outside (and with distance) life can look like a series of well-planned choices. But from the inside (and in the moment), it feels like a series of well-timed stumblings.

While I was in my twenties I can say for certain I wasn’t following any plan or clear, goal-oriented route from college to jobs to grad school to jobs…. In fact, I often felt like things were just “happening” and I was lucky to be along for the ride.

I didn’t even know what graduate school was until after I had earned my B.A. when a history professor then at SUNY New Paltz, Carole Levin, stayed in touch with me and encouraged me to apply. Then one day, acceptance letter in hand and pissed-off at my boss, I took the leap to move half-way across the country, to seek the mysterious “Master’s Degree.” It was a bit impulsive.

Once in graduate school, I figured I’d quickly get the “medieval” requirement out of the way and begrudgingly signed up for Old English—the Anglo Saxon Language. Surprisingly, I fell in love with it! Seeing the way that nuances can’t be carried cleanly from one language to another, hearing the way sounds and rhythms work together to create meaning—I was hooked.

So, I became a medievalist because of a kind professor, a crappy boss, and a curricular requirement.

Now in my forties looking back, however, I make narrative sense of the past and draw meaningful connections between intentions and choices. I see agency or unconscious drives undulating, ocean-like, under seemingly random events. I can imagine it wasn’t just a series of meetings and mistakes that brought me to grad school and Medieval Studies, but rather, among other things, nostalgia.

In graduate school, in a new state, I was nearly drowning in a whole new world of really smart people. I hadn’t personally known anyone who had gone to grad school and my parents hadn’t gone to college. Perhaps the medieval world with its saints, iconography, morality, and low-brow humor felt like a little bit of home.

I was raised Catholic and had fallen away from the church while my parents remained deeply committed to it. Was Medieval Studies creating a way for me to tap back into those early, pious roots, to build a bridge back to my parents, to their love and acceptance? Maybe this discipline is my penance for my angsty, moody teen-aged years.

Here, at the end of another year, at the end of another semester, I’m grateful for whatever happy accidents, impulsive decisions, and unconscious cravings landed me in this cozy, book-filled office, surrounded by smart colleagues and sweet students, reading great literature and snuggling an awesome pup.

But I’m also curious to see what kind of meanings my future-self will weave a decade hence. What deep-seated, invisible drives propel me now that will be so clear to her then?

 

Post-election Practice

Feeling grateful for my practice these past couple of weeks. Or, rather, feeling grateful that I have a practice to turn to and deepen as I navigate some raw emotional terrain.[1]

Still in a spell of grieving, the profundity of which continues to surprise me, I read and teach of despair and hell and hope, winging through the early books of “Paradise Lost.” Of misogyny, racism, internalized self-loathing and roots of selfish evil through the late acts of “Othello.”

I don’t want to act while I’m still reactive—while the emotion, thick in my throat, makes swift action seem urgent, necessary, the only thing to do. I read of Sidney’s “feeling skill,” of freezing fires, and an epic poem of paradox and pun, and I sit with, sit with, sit with.

I notice sadness and grief turning to blame. I feel my finger pointing—what are YOU doing? What are YOU going to do? What should WE do? Why aren’t WE doing anything? What am I doing? What can I do? Why aren’t I doing enough?

Post- election, I’ve, like others, felt as though someone had died. I’ve also felt heartbreak.

In the past, when grieving for lost life or lost love, I have blamed and hated God, or fate, or myself. I’ve also thirsted for revenge, despaired, and withdrawn.

But in recent memory my practice has—mirabilis!— brought perspective. Death… resilience. Heartbreak…resilience.

Now…?

I’m still sitting with.

I’m reading, teaching, visiting with friends and family, crying, speaking, laughing, cooking, hiking, … yes.

But still sitting with. Sitting with. Sitting with.

Thank you, my sweet community of poets, contemplatives, scientists, students, creators, destroyers, yogis, lovers, and friends for all the chances you’ve given me to sit with, sit with, sit with; for co-creating with me a buoy of experience to practice, practice, practice.

 

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[1] Noticing my strong desire to, as I write, note that my suffering is minimal compared to that of others. Noticing my desire to acknowledge that I really have no right to feel so sad, etc. But, I guess, my subject here is not how rational or justified my fear and sadness are, but rather how palpable.

Let’s Talk Pedagogy

This evening, like many evenings, I am curious about pedagogy. As our university reorganizes from departments into Clusters, I am curious to see where and how our pedagogies—the philosophies that drive our teaching practices—evolve.

We are highlighting the importance of “kindness.” We are identifying as “connected.” We are encouraging “interdisciplinarity.” As we develop practices to encourage kindness, to be connected, and to do interdisciplinarity, we must also articulate the philosophical foundations that drive these practices. (See initial musings on “interdisciplinarity” by Plymouth colleagues here, about ¼ down the page).

Commitees, task forces, working groups and Faculty Meetings need to stay on-task, vote, and produce. Where do we have conversations that help identify and refine our pedagogies? (As we seek a new director for the emerging Center for Transformation through Teaching, Leadership, and Lifelong Learning, I hope we will have a home for meaningful investigations of pedagogy. And I hope that we all step up to investigate together!)

Our campus Contemplative Education group works explicitly with pedagogy and practice. We read, write, teach, experiment, and refine our pedagogy together. I find that the more I explore the foundations of what I hold to be true and valuable (or, some might say, the more I explore my ontologies and epistemologies,) the more integrity and intentionality my teaching has.

I know there are a few other people on campus pairing the contemplative (reflective) and the active (teaching) in community with one another. (I see you at Chase Street Market, Reflective Practice peeps!). But I’m wondering if there are more, and how we can find each other.

Lastly, I’ll just put out here that there’s a lot of overlap in philosophy—maybe not yet in practice– between Open Education and Contemplative Pedagogy. They both rest on an ontology of connectedness. They both care deeply about access and inclusion. They both are rigorously self-critical and self-aware.  They both value process and require alternatives to traditional, empirical assessments or evaluations.

And so, I’m adding to my ongoing projects (on teaching medieval literature, on Yoga as a NRM in the West, on mysticism & consciousness studies, etc.) an exploration of the connections between Open and Contemplative. If any ACMHE people want to join me, reach out! If any Plymouth peeps want to invite me to pedagogy-centered events or conversations you’re having in clusters, departments, or offices, reach out! Let’s connect.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clusters and Kindness

My university is in the midst of transformation to a model of education based on “strategic clusters,” interdisciplinary hubs in which students, faculty and staff work with community partners on real-world problems and intellectual and creative endeavors. (Information here, here, and here).

As we reorganize to facilitate partnerships across and beyond campus, one of my dear colleagues frequently asks, “How will reorganizing into clusters help me do things that I can’t currently do within the existing structure?”

My answer has been: By having a campus-wide ethos of collaboration, we will be more apt to—and able to—build bridges and ease communication between Student Affairs & Academic Affairs, between the campus & our region, etc.  Of course, my colleague responds that we are already doing these things in many ways. And that’s true.

But recently I’ve noticed how the rhetoric of clusters and collaboration is tangibly affecting the decisions I make, and therefore the work I do, and what the university becomes.

It’s a great example for me of how intention itself is a powerful driver. Even though I am still in a traditional department, for now, and even though our curriculum still looks the same, for now, I am making small but important decisions slightly differently than I would have two years ago, before these conversations and plans began.

I have two examples. I’ll share one tonight and another next week.

First—

Recently, a group of people, mainly in Student Affairs, started a campaign called “Panthers for Peace.”

Frankly, I don’t even know if this campaign would have gotten on my radar two years ago. I confess that even if I had received notification of it, I probably would have seen it as a “Student Affairs” thing and would have believed that my Academic Affairs work needed my attention, and that would have been it.

But this campaign did get on my radar thanks to some deliberate choices on my part to learn more about Student Affairs. I currently serve as the faculty observer to our Professional and Technical Staff meetings, so, naturally, I heard people talking about Panthers for Peace. But also, by being on the Plymouth State bowling league, attending Jazzercise classes downtown, etc., I have developed friendships and connections with my Student Affairs colleagues that make us “rounder” and fuller, as humans, to one another.  I care more about what “they” do, honestly, because I care more about them.

And, also, of course, it makes sense for us to know each other and what we do so that students can have a more cohesive experience at our university.

But my point is that this group threw into relief how my pedagogy is already serving this initiative. Rather than taking on “more work” or changing the work that I’m doing so that I can work with this fabulous group of people on their projects to promote a kind culture on our campus (as I was at first tempted to do),  with reflection, I now see another way. I can share with my Academic Affairs colleagues how our curricular and pedagogical choices can contribute to this effort, Panthers for Peace.

To be honest, I didn’t even know (for sure) that my pedagogy was contributing to a culture of kindness on campus until recently, when two separate students shared anecdotes with me.

Last week I was a guest speaker in a Medieval Philosophy class that had one of my former students in it. Happy to see her again, we joked about a particularly vivid and adoring “validation” she had received from a classmate in Arthurian Legends—a Gen Ed course that draws students from all different majors. She said, “People from that class still come up to me and say that! It’s so funny.” I was tickled that, six months later, students would still feel kinship with one another, and that this student would continue to be (rightfully) validated for her awesomeness.

A few days later I mentioned this encounter to another former Arthurian Legends student—our student worker in the English department. She said, “Oh yeah—I still say hi to people from that class. Which is weird because I never talk to or remember people from most of my classes.”

Wow. You can imagine how happy this made me.

I’ve always been doing what I think is best for students, and I’ve hoped that they carry dispositions of curiosity, bravery, humility, and comaraderie into the wider world, but it never occurred to me that the way I do “class participation” could simply and importantly encourage students to be kinder to one another after the course is over.

And so maybe “clusters” aren’t yet helping me do things I couldn’t do before. But they are helping me see more value to what I do and to what I have felt I had been doing in isolation.

Knowing that the institution I serve is committed to kindness, collaboration, and creative-problem-solving has thrown into relief the small ways I can contribute to those causes without serving on more committees or overhauling my courses (though I may be doing that, too).

Intention does affect action. And words do matter. More soon.