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Cultivating minds and hearts

A university teacher argues for “contemplative practices” in university teaching to help students become more reflective and engaged as citizens.


“Become.” This simple and concise statement frames the campus brand at Memorial University, my alma mater and where I now work. The slogan strives to inspire students to fulfill or at least tap into their inherent potential, but the brand campaign has me wondering more deeply: What do we become in the modern university? And what do we want others to become in their contact with higher education?

I recently encountered a thought from Arthur Zajonc, professor of physics at Amherst College in Massachusetts, who frames the challenge of “what to become” at university in profound and surprising terms: “The university is well-practised at educating the mind for critical reasoning, critical writing and critical speaking, as well as for scientific and quantitative analysis. But is this sufficient? In a world beset with conflict, internal as well as external, isn’t it of equal if not greater importance to balance the sharpening of our intellects with the systematic cultivation of our hearts?”

Dr. Zajonc’s remark pulled me up short. I have loved the richly fascinating “life of the mind” that academia grooms through its emphasis on critical thinking, but I do believe that regular care and attention to the heart’s deepest desires and most profound questions also is vital to leading a well-balanced and meaningful life. University, and particularly grad school, certainly helped me to become a highly trained intellectual, but what did it do to cultivate the life of my heart?

One moment stands out for me: the warning I got from a seasoned professor as I struggled to settle on a master’s thesis topic. He said, “Don’t show them your heart!” It was well-meaning counsel, but his caution was clear: academic survival requires you to hide and protect your innermost questing and yearning. I tried to heed his advice as I prepared to submit to scholarly scrutiny of thesis proposals, comprehensive exams and dissertation defences, but found that stifling my heart’s questions dulled my creativity and sent me down rabbit holes of ideas I didn’t care enough to pursue. When I did let my heart speak, I found my insights to be more fully rounded and my lines of critical inquiry to be animated by personal conviction. I have emerged from that scholar’s rite of passage and now find myself on the other side of the lectern. I wrestle with what to say to my students about their academic journeys because I recognize that their minds strive for knowledge but their hearts search for meaning.

If we in higher education truly accept a responsibility to help prepare the next generation to tackle humankind’s internal and external conflicts, then we also have to recognize the internal and external landscapes in which this transformation takes place. The curriculum of most postsecondary institutions has traditionally placed the cognitive pursuits of its faculty, students and staff at the fore, while neglecting to account in any systematic way for the role that affective development plays in the formation of a responsible, educated and engaged citizenry. In other words, intellect and heart live separate lives on most university campuses. However, I have come to realize the peril of leaving one’s heart at the classroom door. Neglecting to address, value and strengthen the fundamental connections between knowledge and love leads to an impoverished understanding of the world and inhibits the kind of authentic transformation that education has the power to foster.

I have come to this realization through my exploration of something called contemplative education. I, along with Dr. Zajonc and a growing number of academics in North America, belong to a community of scholars interested in more integrative experiences with teaching and learning. From its Latin roots, the word “contemplation” means to observe or gaze attentively.  A companion term is mindfulness, which means staying present, focused and non-judgmental in the moment.

Contemplative practices cover a wide spectrum, from simple breathing exercises and seated meditation to free writing and even walking. Contemplative education draws upon a variety of such mindfulness-based practices and techniques in order to consciously hone attention, develop concentration, open awareness, foster emotional balance and build the capacity for insight and creativity. All of those qualities are essential aspects of education, understood with its own Latin roots of “leading forth” and “drawing out” in mind. What contemplative education offers is the possibility to foster students who will be more just, compassionate and reflective as they graduate and begin to engage the world as citizens.

The most basic aim of contemplative education on an individual level is to cultivate attention, which is at the heart of any learning experience. At a time when multitasking is the norm and distraction is daily, how do we attract and hold the attention of our students without becoming yet something else to be tuned out? Attention and awareness are fundamental qualities of humanity, crucial to almost every human activity, and yet little time, effort or care is spent to systematically train or cultivate focused attention in educational environments.

A study conducted for the Centre for Contemplative Mind in Society and recently published in the journal Teachers College Record outlines the findings from 40 years’ worth of empirical research on the educational benefits of contemplative and meditative practices. The report found that mindfulness-based meditation can enhance and advance teaching and learning by helping to improve students’ abilities to concentrate, to process information quickly and accurately, and to decrease anxiety and stress. From attention then blooms the capacity not just to concentrate on the task at hand but also to develop a host of interpersonal skills that are crucial to living well in the world. The study points to students’ improved capacities to regulate their negative emotions and to promote a positive state of mind, to develop better and deeper self-understanding, and to cultivate empathy and compassion. Although contemplative education begins with simple practices that focus attention, those practices have profound and lasting effects on students’ cognitive and affective capacities.

Examples of contemplative classroom practice include the use of moments of silence at the beginning of class to help students transition their attention from the busyness of outside life to the task at hand, short readings of Zen poetry to supplement problem-solving activities, free-writing exercises to tap into one’s creative faculties, and journal reflections to construct deep and personal connections with course material. In the midst of the partial and divided attention that characterizes life in the digital age, contemplative educators have guided students through exercises in mindful e-mailing that focus on patterns in one’s mood, breath and physical state as one engages with fast-paced technology.

Contemplative approaches have found a home in higher education everywhere, from music programs to leadership studies and from math classes to architecture design studios. In my class on Religion and the Problem of Evil, I invited guest speakers who facilitated meditation practices to help students explore compassion as a relevant response to evil. Students remembered this experiential aspect of the course more than any other reading or lecture throughout the term. They reported feeling more empowered to handle interior and exterior stressors and to make a difference in the wider world because of contemplative practices in the classroom.

Instructors may choose individually to develop and adapt classroom-based, course-specific contemplative practices to enliven course content, but there is now a growing interest in contemplation as an interdisciplinary field of study. Harold Roth spearheads the contemplative studies initiative at Brown University which seeks to identify, explore and critically assess contemplative experience through a variety of scientific, humanistic and creative lenses. Contemplation-infused academic programs such as the bachelor of fine arts in jazz and contemplative studies at the University of Michigan are gaining notice as well.

On an institutional level, perhaps the best known exemplar of contemplative education is Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. Founded in 1974 as a private, non-sectarian, liberal arts institution, Naropa has long embraced contemplative practices of the East and West to ground its academic ethos. North American universities that are more conventional have been much slower to recognize the potential benefits of contemplative education. But the landscape is changing with the help of organizations like the Massachusetts-based Center for Contemplative Mind in Society and the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education. Both organizations integrate contemplative approaches with contemporary working life and education to promote a more holistic way of living and finding meaning in the world.

I believe that we ought to engage in more conversations about the role of contemplative attention in the university because of the ways that it catalyzes both individual and communal transformation. To help sow seeds for that conversation, I co-founded a Faculty Learning Community on Contemplative Education at Memorial University. Since November 2009, a small interdisciplinary group of faculty and staff have met regularly to examine the ways that contemplative and meditative practices can inform our teaching and professional lives, both inside and outside the classroom.

As more universities adopt teaching and learning visions dedicated to community engagement, global citizenship and social responsibility, I find myself taking Memorial’s brand campaign a little more to heart. I try to facilitate the kind of catalytic experiences that engender authentic learning and that help students become whatever their best selves can be.

As a recent PhD embarking upon new teaching adventures, I have felt torn between standing safely behind a podium clutching my sheaf of lecture notes as I deliver the next round of information, and daring both the students and myself to experiment with our intellectual and emotional comfort zones. I am trying to treat teaching with a more mindful sense of care. As the French philosopher and activist Simone Weil has said, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

The contemplative education movement is premised on the position that attention is one of the most precious and basic responses the human mind has to offer the world. By attending to the nature and quality of attention – both my own and that of my students – I hope to encourage modes and qualities of attention that will empower students not just to pass the next test but also to build skills and cultivate mindsets that will carry them in good stead for their entire lives.

Janna Rosales is a visiting assistant professor in the faculty of engineering and applied science at Memorial University. She also recently taught in the department of religious studies at Memorial.

Janna Rosales
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  1. Lina Ru / August 7, 2012 at 14:04

    We could ask, why do certain children cannot focus their attention in class? Is there something wrong with the system or with the children? This movie follows this line of thinking and argues that the system is in need of a profound change:

    If there is a need to reform education, then perhaps contemplative education is one of those venues for positive transformation.

    Contemplative education challenges the system that values more competition and memorization than creative thinking. If the heart of contemplative education is attention, then the expression of generosity that results from attention could be creativity. Would you say that a consequence of contemplative education is a more creative student?

    Hopefully, more universities achieve to understand the notion of authentic learning. It is difficult to experiment and move away from a comfort zone, but progress has always occurred thanks to those that challenge the traveled paths.

    Thank you for this thought provoking article!

  2. Todd Barr / August 17, 2012 at 18:03

    Two responses to this important article:

    1. Check out bell hooks “Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope” Here is a quote from the renowned scholar: “When teachers teach with love, combining care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect, and trust, we are often able to enter the classroom and go straight to the heart of the matter, which is knowing what to do on any given day to create the best climate for learning.”

    2. A foundation of community service-learning is reflection. Here are some examples:

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