Leaving Home

There was a time when, if I were to be petty at work, a colleague might affectionately ask me, “Does Princess need a cookie?” Now, I do not have the luxury of being petty at work. I am the new person.

For the past thirteen years, working as an English professor, department chair, conference organizer, and center director at a small New England university, I have benefited from my colleagues’ generous and perhaps faulty memories and assumptions about me, the power of which I’m only just now coming to recognize.

I got very used to my colleagues knowing I am a hard worker, believing my intentions to be benevolent, and assuming my actions had integrity. Now– working in a new role, in a new state, at a new institution– I find myself operating without this safety net. It’s hard.

Rather than my slip-ups being generously read as a momentary lapse in an otherwise long and distinguished career of “getting it right,” I feel like my slip-ups now are magnified as potentially pattern-setting character deficits. They have the power to define me to colleagues I have only just met. And, being new, I slip-up. Often.

I gotta say: I got used to people thinking I’m awesome.

Or, at least treating me like they do.

This move has been great in a lot of ways. But once in a while I find myself struggling with identity issues and homesickness. It’s times like these I am grateful I have a practice that requires me to pause, reflect, digest.

Spring in Virginia

After contemplative practice, I am reminded that one of the reasons I left my cozy, tenured New England paradise was that I had wanted to be stretched and challenged. I knew I had been resting on my laurels and suspected I was getting… less awesome. And, after practice, I feel inspired to embrace this stretch and challenge.

But also, while people had treated me like I was awesome, some part of me knew I wasn’t actually being awesome. I wasn’t working as hard as I could. I wasn’t as sharp as I could have been. Don’t get me wrong: I have no interest in over-working or self-flagellation. And I did a good job. More precisely, I was comfortable but I wasn’t flourishing.

I recognize the ridiculous amount of privilege I have to even write such words. Ouch.

And so, this new environment, while challenging, is … well… challenging! And that is awesome. I am re-learning humility as I watch myself screw up this and that little detail. I also have a chance to examine my enaction of integrity and devotion– two key words for me in my practice. I also get to feel fear arise as I now, without tenure, vulnerable to budget cuts and the vacillations of administrative whims, navigate new dangers.

All of this is to say: I miss my peeps. I am excited by this challenge. I am fearful of being inadequate. I am human. I am feeling. I am privileged. I am struggling. I am grateful.


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.

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!



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.

The Transformative Banquet

[CollegeContemplative will feature Guest Bloggers from October 2013-February 2014. Welcome, Bart Everson!]

How to integrate contemplation onto a program of faculty development? That is the question to which I continually return.

Many traditional contemplative practices and traditions emphasize the importance of silence and quieting the mind. There’s a strand in our culture of superficial busyness that actively resists this. The tension between these countervailing tendencies is palpable.

In thinking about our faculty development activities, I realized that we participate in both sides of this equation. To some degree, almost everything we promote at the Center for the Advancement of Teaching (CAT) has the aim of establishing space and time for some form of contemplation and reflection. Yet we are often merely substituting one form of busyness for another.

We do not always truly move toward “uncovering the heart” of things. It seems that in most of our faculty development activities, the deepest questions of meaning and purpose are consistently deferred. We strive to develop specific skills in our faculty members, which is well and good, but we neglect to encourage the development of the whole person.

Changing that is the essence of what I’ve come to call “The Transformative Banquet.”

Preparing for a Banquet

Laying the Table

When report on my efforts at POD Network Conference, I employed the following metaphor to describe what we were trying to accomplish:

The image of a banquet has been helpful in conceptualizing this work, emphasizing the virtues of hospitality and joyful fellowship. Our hope is that the right nourishment and refreshment will prove transformative for our faculty, staff, students, administrators, alumni — indeed the whole Xavier family. At this stage, we are still laying the table and inviting the guests.

I have used the concept of the Transformative Banquet ever since, in my mind at least, to group our diverse efforts under a single heading.

What follows is a listing of such faculty development activities sponsored by CAT over the last three years.

Contemplative Examples

Metta Bhavana for Teachers

In May of 2011, I had the opportunity to lead a short discussion with participants in our annual institute, the Faculty Communities of Teaching Scholars (FaCTS). Our theme for that year was “Promoting Critical Thinking and Self-Authorship in the First Two Years.” Contemplative practices seem like a perfect fit for developing self-authorship, and so I attempted to teach by example. As we were thinking so intensely about our students’ needs and capacities, I conducted a loving-kindness meditation. Also known as Metta Bhavana, this is an ancient practice from the Buddhist tradition. I modified the typical practice to focus specifically on our students.

In some ways, I may have been overreaching. I am not a practicing Buddhist, and more to the point I had never done Metta Bhavana before. Nevertheless, I went forward with it, and I was fairly pleased with the results. Certainly I did get some good feedback from the participants, with at least one person saying she repeated the practice later on her own time. That’s wonderful.

All the same, in some ways I considered the exercise at least a partial failure. The problem was not the practice itself, I think, so much as what followed. I was so intent on preparing for the Metta Bhavana itself that I did not attend to the context. I failed to make a strong connection between the meditative practice and the larger conversations that had been emerging in the classroom over the previous days. That left some participants wondering what to make of it all.

But if this was a failure, at least it was an educational and perhaps necessary one. I learned a valuable lesson. Several in fact. Always attend the context. Always make the connection. When trying something new, don’t neglect these important basics.

Cultivating a Reflective Classroom

One of our first faculty to actively attempt implementing a contemplative curriculum was my boss, CAT director Elizabeth Yost Hammer. She integrated various contemplative practices into an Advanced Research class in psychology.

In fall 2011, we gave a joint presentation. I gave a broad overview of the ideas of contemplative pedagogy and integrative learning. Dr. Hammer described her class and shared student responses to these techniques. We encouraged attendees to discuss the utility of such techniques in their own courses and disciplines.

Tonglin for Faculty

In May 2012, our FaCTS institute theme was “Teaching for Social Responsibility.” We integrated contemplative practices into each day of the program, to demonstrate the variety of possibilities, from reflective writing to deep listening. Of these, one of the most moving and effective practices was an adaptation of the tonglin of Tibetan Buddhism. Our university was on the brink of a reorganization, and there was some tension on campus. We invited faculty to breathe in the collective stress and breathe out peace.

Mindfulness for You & Your Students

I’d set myself a year-long personal project, to deepen and strengthen and integrate just about everything I do, to live with more fullness of intention. I found four major practices very useful and helpful in this regard: meditation, baking bread, writing, and observing a cycle of seasonal celebrations. (I’m still practicing all four.)

After a year of mindfulness meditation, and bolstered by my attendance of the Mindfulness in Education Network’s annual conference, I felt that I was ready to offer a more focused workshop to Xavier faculty. So, in September of 2012, I conducted a session called “Mindfulness for You & Your Students,” inspired in large part by Deborah Schoeberlein’s wonderful book, ”Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness”.

This felt like a breakthrough. It was also a lot of fun. I got to borrow a huge gong from our music department.


Though I strongly feel mediation has intrinsic value, I played the unabashed salesman, extolling the benefits of meditation and citing well-established research. We did a short mindfulness practice together. Following Schoeberlein’s lead, I invited faculty to try a formal mindfulness practice for one month. This led directly to the formation of a support group.

Xavier Mindfulness Support Group

The Xavier Mindfulness Support Group met weekly throughout the experimental month to allow faculty (and staff) space to discuss their experiences and challenges, to talk about how this might inform their teaching, and to discuss programmatic initiatives.

These support sessions were sparsely attended, but nonetheless valuable. I was quite interested to see how varied were the responses to the one-month experiment. Some people took to it; they simply enjoyed the exercise and said they planned to continue. Some people reported difficulty in “finding time” in their busy schedules. Others reported difficulty in actually doing the practice. They could not see their way through all five minutes.

Another important outcome was our “Sustaining the Dialog” initiative, about which more next week.

Contemplative Practices in Diverse Traditions, Pt. 1: Lectio Divina

We invited Rev. William Thiele of the School for Contemplative Living to join us and lead a session on lectio divina. Though my approach so far had been decidedly secular, I wanted faculty to learn how contemplative practices play a role in diverse wisdom traditions. I also wanted to start building connections with practitioners from the local community. I figured something with Catholic roots would be a good place to start.

Smaller Moments

We also integrate contemplative practice into our programs in smaller ways that might often escape notice or mention. For example, I almost always begin my presentation and discussions with a moment of silence or just a few deep collective breaths. It’s just become a part of what I do as a faculty developer.

Triple Goal

As these efforts have progressed, three goals have emerged. I can’t say that we began with these goals in mind. At the outset, my thinking was more instinctive and intuitive: This seems interesting. This feels right. I was driven by curiosity as much as anything else.

Now, after several years, I can assert say that we integrate contemplation into our faculty development programs for three distinct but mutually supportive reasons:

  1. to enhance the programming itself,
  2. to promote faculty well-being, and
  3. to encourage contemplative pedagogy.

It’s pretty basic stuff, and in retrospect it all seems perfectly obvious. It takes a bit of mental effort to remember that I didn’t always do things this way.

But wait, there’s more!

A Larger Integrative Program

While contemplation is a worthy end in itself, it’s vitally important to remember that contemplation does not happen in a vacuum. Some might imagine the meditative practitioner floating on a cloud somewhere “up there,” lost in the sky, lost in esoteric and ethereal pursuits, disconnected from the world of people and society. That’s not an accurate image in my view. Therefore it’s been equally important to me to get faculty thinking about how everything connects: how we connect to our mission, how contemplation connects to learning, how our basic life skills connect to our professional work, how our creativity connects to teaching, and so on.

Who Are You?

With the subtitle “Your Vocation & Our Shared Mission,” this roundtable discussion turned on the following questions: Who are you? What values and life experiences do you bring to Xavier? Do you have a personal life mission, or do you wish to develop one? What passions motivate your teaching? Where do you feel you have your greatest success, and what are your biggest challenges? What aspects of Xavier’s mission are most compelling to you? Are there aspects of the mission which are difficult to connect to your teaching?

The Heart of Higher Education

Every year CAT sponsors a Fall Faculty Book Club. In 2010, we read The Heart of Higher Education by Parker Palmer and Arthur Zajonc. We met three times to discuss our reading. As the conversation opened up, a number of themes emerged. Here are some that seemed most salient:

  • For ourselves as teachers, the need to examine “who we are” rather than technique
  • For our students, the need to focus on inquiry rather than answers
  • The importance of conveying a sense of awe and wonder
  • Holistic perspectives need to be woven into discussions on our campus (one faculty member reported only having such discussions off-campus)
  • One faculty member confessed: We are not connecting with students in our program as we should
  • Our relation to students may have moved from transformational to transactional
  • We may do more integrative learning than big research institutions — but perhaps less than we did twenty years ago

This text has served as a touchstone ever since. I often refer back to it for inspiration and support.

Integrative Learning Spotlight

For several years, Dr. Michael Homan (Theology) has used a unique project-based approach that challenges students to engage the course content in the so-called real world. In his biblical studies course, Dr. Homan wanted students to understand the prophets of the Hebrew Bible as living people with relatable concerns, rather than antique characters in an ancient text. To this end, students in his class must complete a semester-long project with 15 clearly defined steps. Students are required to identify the biggest problems in the world today, to pick one as their focus, to develop a plan to change the world and address their chosen problem, to implement that plan, and to reflect upon their efforts afterward. It’s no easy task, and it involves a lot of work for both student and teacher.

This approach is profoundly integrative. CAT invited Dr. Homan to share his process with colleagues. Several students also participated in the session and discussed their projects and what they’d learned about the content matter and themselves. We hope to make this the first of an occasional series.

I Don’t Have Time for This Workshop

This was a time management workshop inspired by Catherine Ross (Wake Forest University). This seemingly quotidian topic is of course of paramount importance to stressed and overburdened faculty. It gave us an opportunity to talk about the importance of work-life balance and setting priorities.

Supporting Your Own Creativity

Academics are required to manifest a great deal of creativity. Teaching, research, service — all may be viewed as a creative acts. Yet we don’t often think in these terms. This session invited participants to understand creativity as playing a central role in our professional lives. We dispelled unhelpful myths and examined current theories of creativity. A broad array of tips and techniques for enhancing and supporting creativity were offered.

Sentipensante Pedagogy

Currently in our Fall Faculty Book Club we are reading Sentipensante Pedagogy by Laura I. Rendón. This is opening up a discussion of the role of spirituality and religion in teaching and learning.

Amandafied Table Setting

Whew! When you add it all up in one place it certainly seems like a lot. Of course, in actual fact, all these sessions were spread over several years. Yet it’s my hope that these efforts are not so diffuse as to be lost in the churn of professional responsibilities from semester to semester. It’s my hope that at this metaphorical banquet table, faculty will find a rich source of nourishment within themselves.

Next week: Sustaining the Dialog

References and Photo Credits

The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal by Parker Palmer and Arthur Zajonc

Sentipensante (Sensing/Thinking) Pedagogy: Educating for Wholeness, Social Justice and Liberation by Laura I. Rendón

Preparing for a Banquet / CC BY 2.0

Gong / CC BY 2.0

Amandafied Table Setting / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0