What is “contemplative reading”?

Recently a friend asked me:

What is “contemplative reading”? Is it just “thinking about” what you have read?

My shorthand answer was this:

We read for lots of different reasons: to be entertained, to acquire information, to analyze, to build arguments, to escape, etc.  But when we read contemplatively, we read to reflect upon our own lives. We engage the big questions– the un-Googleable questions: How may I live with more peace and joy? How may I deal with despair?

But there’s more!

I suggest that contemplative reading-– whatever it looks like–

  1. Requires a faith in text’s capacity to have meaning
  2. Features first-person critical practices
  3. Aims at transforming habitual ways of being, thinking, doing

This weekend I’ll be convening a one-hour workshop on contemplative reading at the 10th Annual Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education conference. There I’ll propose these broad contours and facilitate a conversation to help synthesize and shape this aspect of the emerging field of Contemplative Studies.

What are your thoughts? Let’s collaborate!


Contemplative Approaches in Communication and Media Studies: Dialogue, Language, and Empathy

By Dr. Annette M. Holba, Communication and Media Studies at Plymouth State University

Contemplative approaches to learning and knowing in communication and media studies involves understanding and comprehending the other at a basic human level. In doing so, conscious listening and conscious communication aims at building empathy and cultivating conditions for dialogue so that collaborative and deliberative dialogue ensues, opening public communication and dialogue toward collaboration, consensus, and community.

When we consciously listen contemplatively, we achieve empathetic understanding of the other allowing us to step in the shoes of the other and learn from their experiences. This enhances our ability to communicate openly with others from different contexts. This can transform our own perspective(s) and inform our decision making.

We consciously listen contemplatively when we intentionally bring an attitude of openness and curiosity, and the capacity to ask questions grounded in the experience of others.

Example: “Tell me about a time when you felt uncomfortable in a situation and what you did about it to become comfortable?

Rather than: “I don’t really need to know about your experiences – I suspect we have similar experiences and I have had a broad range of experience, so I already get it….”

We consciously communicate contemplatively by intentionally considering how we might connect with the other from a different worldview—using dialogic principles to cultivate empathy with others and making decisions from a place of collaboration, consensus, and hermeneutic humility. We do this with a disposition of openness and serendipity.

Example: “I don’t understand why you think this is important, so, please tell me why you believe this is important and together we can find a way to go forward together?”

Rather than: “This doesn’t make sense. I have no idea what you are talking about and I don’t understand why this is important—so let’s do something else, ok?”

We listen and communicate contemplatively when we notice our own feelings and thoughts as they arise and we consider how our feelings and thinking relates to thoughts of others. We allow this openness to keep our mindsets open and we seek dialogic means for finding common ground from which we can move forward together.

Example: “Let’s figure this out together. Both of us bring valuable and legitimate experience to the table and we can figure this out together if we set goals and have a shared vision of our outcomes.”

Rather than: “I do not care what you think…. I am tired and finished talking.”

Conscious listening and conscious communication are essential elements for meaningful interdependent engagement with others while supporting our ability to be independent yet empathetic thinkers. This enables us to 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, and good or bad while recognizing interpretive possibilities. Without conscious listening and conscious communication, we cannot be purposeful or thoughtful about what we communicate or how we communicate.

Contemplative conscious listening and communicating enables us to identify pathways for connecting with other human beings, enhance communication competencies, and to forego missteps, assumptions, and unintentional consequences of sloppy communication with others.

Conscious listening and conscious communication practices cultivates an empathetic sensibility encouraging 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.

This blog post is a slightly modified version of a document Dr. Holba  created for undergraduate students in a contemplative General education course that explores The Self and Society: “Curiosity, Ethics, and the Public Good.” This course was part of a suite of four courses, including those that explore Creative Thought (“Curiosity, Playfulness, Creativity”) and Past & Present (“Curiosity, Perspective, and Shakespeare”)

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

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!


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.



Contemplative Approaches: Shared Purpose, Meaning, Goals

Over the past two weeks I’ve had several opportunities to give descriptions of Contemplative Pedagogy and Contemplative Approaches in, say, two minutes or fewer.

I’m enjoying distinguishing “Contemplative Inquiry” from “mindfulness” and bringing the conversation beyond meditation and stress-reduction to the confluence of the critical, creative, and contemplative approaches to problem-solving.

While I can talk broadly about contemplative practices, when it comes to ontology, goals, and outcomes, I find myself wondering how broadly—if at all—my positions are shared by contemplative educators.

Please allow me to brainstorm-blog on my way to articulating something substantial. Please also share with me your comments and feedback!

With colleagues I’m currently drafting a series of General Education courses entitled “Contemplative Approaches to…” and developing shared pedagogical aims of “Contemplative Approaches to Scientific Inquiry,” “Contemplative Approaches to the Past and Present,” “to the Self and Society,” and “to Creative Thought.”

Here are some of my initial musings that I’m carrying with me into a round of collaboration, research and note-taking:

  • Contemplative inquiry complements (it does not replace) critical and creative capacities and approaches.
  • Contemplative inquiry arises from dispositions of humility and curiosity.
  • Contemplative approaches consider interconnectedness in epistemology as well as in approaches to problem-solving and decision-making.
  • Contemplative approaches share a service-driven purpose.
  • Contemplative inquiry illuminates habit and prevents mission-drift by re-evaluating and articulating the purpose or the meaning of the endeavor, which may change as problems and issues arise and are addressed.

This brainstorming grows out of some beliefs that inform my pedagogy, beliefs I need to re-examine and re-assess.

Ontology, Goals, and Outcomes:

I believe in simultaneous interconnectedness and emptiness.  This “belief” is (of course) subject to scrutiny, reflection, and revision by myself and others, but it’s certainly impacting my pedagogy.

Right now I’d say a major goal of my pedagogy is to develop capacities for living with intention and agency.

A core outcome would be a more ethical, just, and (dare I say) happy life.

The next step for the coming weeks is for me to probe how other contemplative educators and researchers articulate ontological beliefs and positions. (Nudge nudge! Be a guest blogger!) I’m also gathering data on the stated goals and outcomes of my fellow contemplative educators and researchers.

Lastly, for now, I’m wondering: How might the ontological positions, goals, and outcomes of contemplative pedagogy constellate with those of the Mind and Life Institute? With Contemplative Studies? Contemplative Inquiry? With good old fashioned Philosophy?

Share your perspectives!



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.







The philosophy that drives the practice

Greetings from the ACMHE Conference at UMass Amherst!

Yesterday, in a session on Contemplative Writing, a presenter talked a bit about reflective writing, brainstorming, and free-writing. Noting that these exercises have a long history, particularly in literacy education, an attendee asked “What makes these activities “contemplative?”

It’s a good question and we had a vigorous, though brief, discussion about it. For me: I don’t think that “brainstorming” or “free-writing” are “contemplative writing” in themselves. Rather, they are writing activities that we can use in support of our contemplative pedagogy.

We, I think, share an underlying teaching philosophy that draws from centuries of human wisdom, from “the contemplative life” of various traditions.

Yes, “contemplative pedagogy” means using meditative practices from these traditions, but it also takes as its basis some ontological, or even cosmological, beliefs. Our teaching techniques cultivate dispositions, develop skills, and convey content in service of a larger philosophy—our pedagogy.

We borrow tips, tricks, and techniques from a variety of educational realms. We are not the first teachers to use reflective writing, to attend to the non-cognitive attributes of our students (i.e. their inner life). It’s important that we recognize our own indebtedness to the many educators who do not identify as “contemplative,” and that we have our own robust sense of the pedagogy that inspires our praxis.

This morning at 9:20 I’ll be attending “Embracing diverse cosmologies and practices in contemplative education,” a session described as taking a critical look at the primary routes (mindfulness, Buddhism) that we’ve, so far, used into contemplative inquiry. I’m hoping this session will help us articulate the individual and collective theories and philosophies that drive our teaching.