Friday, August 08, 2008

Meditate in the classroom?

Can you imagine a college classroom where the teacher incorporates regular meditation, yoga or so-called mindfulness training into the instruction?

That’s not just an academic question.

This past week, a group of more than three dozen university professors -- hailing from California to Connecticut, and from schools in foreign countries including Canada, Thailand and Brazil -- gathered at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, to develop just such curricula for their schools. Dozens of the nation's universities already have mounted such classes, in a variety of disciplines ranging from econcomics to English, religious studies to information sciences, art and architecture, and yes, even business!

As students of the IPOD age increasingly arrive at college wired up for multi-tasking, the effort to go "mindful" seems like an anachronism. Why would students want to "unplug" from computers, cell phones, ipods, televisions and video games to sit and contemplate in silence?

Educators say that mindfulness -- think of it as the opposite of mindlessness -- is exactly what students need in this increasingly hectic and stressful modern information age. By embracing some form of secular, contemplative practice, students are in fact learning how to slow down, how to focus, how to look inward to become more self-reflective about what they read and discuss in the classroom. By enhancing their self-reflection, and their ability to be coherent about their thoughts, even if uncertain, the students are, in effect, developing exactly the kind of critical thinking skills that colleges and universities, big and small, value so highly.

So maybe that's why so many university educators are getting on board with this idea. There are literally dozens of colleges offering classes, including some of the nation's most elite institutions: Brown, Princeton, Amherst, Vassar, Syracuse, Georgetown and the University of Virginia among them.

This week's conference at Smith, the fourth of its kind, is sponsored by a not-for-profit called The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, based in Amherst. The group’s mission is to foster so-called contemplative practices in many walks of life, including the world of business and law, as well as the world of higher education.

You can check out the Center's web site, at

The Center’s objective:

to use these remarkable practices to transform the world. “We believe that by developing the contemplative mind as well as the rational mind - that is, developing one's ability to simply "be," with awareness, openness and clarity - one may become more centered, peaceful, and confident. The personal transformations that often occur with regular contemplative practice, such as increased patience, compassion, and concentration, can play a part in the positive transformation of organizations, businesses, and other institutions. We are dedicated to the idea that contemplative awareness, when incorporated into contemporary life, can help produce a more just, compassionate, and reflective society.”

And now, get a load of some of the titles of classes already being offered:

“Contemplation and Devotion: Art and Space,” offered by an art history professor at Holy Cross college;

"Contemplative Practices and Literary Creation," by a religious studies prof at Brown;

"Seminar in Spirituality and Business Leadership,” by a professor of organizational analysis and management at Santa Clara in California;

“Contemplative Urban School Counseling,” offered by an education professor at CUNY in Brooklyn,

and one of my very favorites,

“Happiness and Economics,” by a professor at the University of Southern Maine.

The academic program director for the Center is Arthur Zajonc, who is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Physics at Amherst College. Dr. Zajonc, who has been at Amherst for the past 30 years, has a mighty impressive CV. And he is, meanwhile, devoted heart and soul to advancing meditation and mindfulness in the world of higher education.

As a teacher of English and writing at the University at Albany, SUNY, I have from time to time used meditation, or what I call “breathing exercises,” in the classroom. (I think the word meditation can put students off.)

The results have been rather remarkable. The writing that has poured forth from students who take time out just to breathe, and just to be with their thoughts, has been some of the most astonishing, and refreshing, work I’ve ever seen from students. And the exercises have surprised the students, who discover a rather remarkably simple way to relax.

OK, so I dropped in at the conference this week. And now I've got a working title for a new class I want to teach. I'm calling it: "Breathing Life into Literature." I'm not exactly sure what I’m going to do in this new class. But I am meditating on it, and if you’re curious, I’ll be happy to let you know what happens.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

To You I Give My Poem

By Camincha

Brown sweet face
silken dark eyes
turned vacant pools.
With time
left their marks.
To you I give my poem.

Who, what, could
have erased
the darkness
in your eyes?
To you I give my poem.

How I wish you could
have known love, happiness.
I hope you do now.
To you I give my poem.

Camincha is a pen name for a San Francisco-based writer.