The Contemplative Pedagogy Symposium: Being Human in Higher Education

I awoke with a start to my alarm. It was 3:45 a.m. and from a quick check out the window, very much the middle of the night. I dutifully got up and, fourteen minutes later, arrived via webcam to the opening session of the 2020 Contemplative Pedagogy Symposium, an event sponsored by the Contemplative Pedagogy Network (CPN). The CPN is a community interested in promoting the integration of contemplative practices in higher and continuing education.

For the first time, their yearly symposium was being broadcast online live from the UK to people worldwide. Though the time zone translation was painful for me, others’ awake faces and sunny surroundings quickly made me glad I hadn’t gone back to sleep.

Caroline Barrett, the network founder, greeted us pleasantly from her sun-filled Essex living room. Barrett started our first session by encouraging us to all scan our bodies as they were in that moment, taking deep breaths and bringing awareness to each part of ourselves, observing, and noticing how we felt in just this moment.

When we reconvened, we had a short reflection noting what we’d observed and how that might shape our engagement with the day. Two things were abundantly clear to me: the first thing was that at 4:15 a.m. I was still far from being fully awake. The second thing was that the very act of acknowledging my limits seemed to—paradoxically—help me let them go. Once I admitted I was tired, I could focus all my attention on learning rather than waste time being annoyed at myself or pretending I was more awake than I was.

Contemplation is the act of observing something with sustained focus and attention. Though it is often associated with a spiritual context, the act of contemplation itself does not belong to any single system of belief. At its foundation, contemplation is a practice where you very simply are (or endeavor to be) fully present in an embodied and physical manner to what is. Being fully present to what is, allows you to respond to situations creatively. In turn, this presence enables openness to a new potential for what could be rather than resorting back to what was or habitually repeating negative behaviors.

Contemplative pedagogy is a way to approach teaching and learning that endeavors to bring contemplation into the educational process. Teachers and students are encouraged to engage with course material through contemplative practices such as embodied presence, focused attention, etc. The act of contemplation produces more significant feelings of connection and integration between the self and the wider world. So too, contemplative pedagogy allows students to find themselves and a relationship to the course content in a far more in-depth manner than surface memorization, lectures, and a transmission model of education tend to support.

There are numerous ways contemplative practice might show up in the classroom. A few examples include:

  • Breath awareness – Carving out five minutes or less for everyone in the class to take several deep breaths, observing and allowing thoughts to settle, leading to greater focus.
  • Mindful writing – Dedicate time at the beginning or end of class to allow students to engage in continuous freewriting about questions focused on course content, leading to greater integration of course material with “real life.”
  • Ceremony + Ritual – begin or end each class session with an agreed-upon or co-created set of practices to allow everyone to let go of the day thus far and transition into the learning space, leading to greater sustained attention.

Throughout the symposium, we explored these practices and many more interspersed with various content-focused presentations. This fluid mix of learning new content and then using our bodies (whether in writing, moving, sitting, etc.) to think through and integrate what we were learning was a marked change from many education events I’d attended in the past and I began writing lots of notes as to how I could integrate some of these ideas into many of my fully online courses.

A pivotal element to contemplative pedagogy is that it requires co-creation and co-participation amongst teachers and students. For example, if we require students to show up fully to the learning process in all its complexity, as educators, we must commit to showing up fully too. You cannot lead someone if you have not or are not willing to go there as well. This “showing up” can be extra challenging in contemporary times when “showing up to class” most often does not mean being present in the same physical space. The excellent news is contemplative practices can transcend physical distance. As long as you can show up to yourself and your own body, you are well on your way.

To this end, day two contained many challenges as to how we, as educators, can learn to better show up to ourselves and, in turn, our students. This discussion also included a time of setting some intentional concrete goals for the future. It turns out, this too is a contemplative practice: beholding and visualizing a future which we have the agency to enact.

Sleep disruption aside, when the symposium concluded on day two, I left inspired by the experience and curious about how I might translate some of these new practices into my teaching and learning practice. Now more than ever, as we all navigate endless hours of interacting with faces on screens rather than fully present human bodies, it is a formidable challenge to consider how to be an embodied human and be entirely online. However, with a little creativity, a commitment to presence and a few deep breaths, I know that we are all more than up to the challenge.




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