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!

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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.

 

 

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Historical Diversity and “Reality”

In the British Literature survey, we move through texts from the Anglo-Saxon, medieval, and Renaissance eras. Sometimes, when comparing and contrasting medieval and Renaissance texts, students will claim that the medieval texts, particularly the romances, are “surface-y” and “fake,” while the Renaissance literature presents more “realistic” and “truer” versions of, say, love.

The idea that the concepts, aesthetics, and forms of the Renaissance are more “realistic” is problematic for a few reasons.

First, it ignores how our own ideas about and experiences of the phenomenal world are themselves constructed and lensed. Why do we think that our version of love is the “real” or “true” one and not merely our own experience and perception of it at this particular moment in time and space? People lived within certain paradigms in the past and will (presumably) live within others in the future. I don’t believe their experiences or articulations to be more or less “true” or “real” than our own.

Second, calling Renaissance perspectives “real” or “true” hides the extent to which our own contemporary cultural norms are influenced by that era, which is, significantly, also called the Early Modern era. Religious toleration, separation of church and state, and freedom from press censorship have been central tenets of liberal bourgeois thought for centuries. It’s perhaps be more accurate to say that the aesthetics and articulations of seventeenth century texts are more familiar to us and our perceptions and values, not objectively “truer”.

Third, when we dismiss medieval aesthetics as something untrue that “we” transcended, we can be blind to the less savory or shameful aspects of our own aesthetic field.

Sometimes students denigrate the romances of the Anglo Norman period because they feature elaborate descriptions of the material world and its beauty: clothing, castles, and women. They’ll say things like: “Back then, people were all about surfaces and the external. That’s so unlike today where what’s inside matters.”

What a delightful delusion! Look at how much appearance matters in our contemporary media. From magazines, commercials, and products to television shows about makeovers and remodeling, we are all about externals.

We also must remember that we are dealing with literary representations, not historical truths. But I won’t go into that here.

I’ve written earlier about how studying literature from the past can make the familiar unfamililar. Here I suggest that it also encourages us to see our lived experiences and tastes as constructed, historically informed, and sometimes “backwards.”

These ideas have implications for encounters with diversity. Sometimes my students deride the European historical “other” as unreal, false and infantile in a way I hope they wouldn’t deride a cultural other.

Reading historical stuff can get us more sensitive to not only our own environment but also to all kinds of diverse environments. As I’ve written about here and here, I invite students to see what is familiar about the past but also to play with and within that which is distinctly different, to take it seriously as a worldview with merits as well as demerits.

Medieval texts are more than curious artifacts from before we rightly “discovered” the self, and my teaching, I hope, provides the opportunity for us to read in ways that help us imagine, respect, and even adopt alternative worldviews.

Our pedagogy can do this no matter what the content of the field. What does it look like in your realm?

“Beowulf” and Love

This evening I’d like to share what I like about reading literature from the medieval past.

First, reading broadly can prevent the tendency to reduce people in other times and other cultures to sweeping generalizations and broad stereotypes, which are dehumanizing. Dirty, bawdy riddles; personal, heart-rending elegies; psychedelic religious visions; gory and glorious epics… These were all a part of Anglo-Saxon literary culture—a culture with just as much emotional range as my own.

Reading broadly also helps me see my own past differently. In college “The Dream of the Rood” had struck me with how it laid bare a human sacrifice at the heart of a religion I had grown up, rather unthinkingly, with. The familiar became strange.

Of course it’s also fun to explore themes across time and space. We can consider the Anglo-Saxon’s poetic advice that men eager for fame “bind fast their breast-coffers,” (hold in emotions), and discuss whether we have such expectations of masculinity here and now in our own world. In high school, students use Beowulf to ask “what makes a good hero? A good king? A good leader?” And I wonder why, from Beowulf to Game of Thrones, we still fantasize about dragons.

But what interests me these days about Beowulf is how it navigates the role of an individual required to live in community.

I may feel alone and may feel urges that are sometimes pathological or anti-social—to lie, cheat, inflate my ego, take from the earth and others without even thinking about giving back, to break things without repairing or growing anything. And yet in the poem, this larger-than-life Beowulf and his unquenchable thirst for glory is channeled into socially beneficial acts (saving people from demons.*).

Which makes me see anew my own daily life and the ways I react to someone or something extraordinary—how I judge the boastful, or am jealous of the awesome. And how it is sometimes difficult for me to feel amazing, or simply safe, at home in the world. In what ways am I complicit in reducing the awesomeness of others and myself?

Similarly, when I read about the elaborate gift-giving ceremonies in the poem, where good deeds are rewarded with physical, material objects that are valuable in themselves but carry additional value by the stories they tell—the stories embedded in their history—I see in a new light my own embarrassment about receiving gifts or getting payment for a good deed.

Sometimes, for me, gift-giving can be an awkward time of guilt and obligation, of embarrassment around exchanging objects as tokens of love and appreciation.

But other times I feel joy and anticipation when I know I’ve found something “perfect” for someone I care about and when I receive something obviously very thoughtful from a beloved. Sometimes, when receiving a gift, I’ve felt really seen and known, which has brought deep gratitude and a sense of belonging, of intimacy.

There’s a lot about the Middle Ages I don’t want to go back to. But when I read Beowulf, I long for more ways we can mutually support one another in our awesomeness. I appreciate how we can tell our stories and become linked to another person through material goods (rather than being in competition for them).

So, I can read Beowulf to learn more about the past; to escape into a fantasy world; to practice analysis and critical reading skills. But I can also empathize with and come to embody the values of this mythical world, which at first seemed strange but has become familiar through contemplative reading.

And I can then return to my world seeing what was familiar in a new way. I can be transformed by my visit to the past. And that’s what I think a great gift of reading about the past is. We can return transformed with the potential to transform. It can make the familiar unfamiliar, which is the start of love—seeing something we’ve always seen as though we’ve never seen it before. It keeps me enchanted with the world!

 

*Yes– saving “people” from “demons” is problematic for notions of Otherness. But that’s for a different posting!