Becoming a contemplation activist

A huge thank you to Mariana Funes for writing this thought provoking blog, that really gets to the heart of what contemplative pedagogy is about.

I have been reading the beautifully titled article by Sandra Braman ‘When nightingales break the law: silence and the construction of reality’ and it has made a big impact on me. I teach online insight dialogue at the Mindfulness Studies Masters at Lesley University. Contemplative Pedagogy is integral to my work and what makes it interesting and challenging is that all my teaching is online inside a Learning Management System; designing and delivering a course that enacts contemplative dialogue on this kind of system is a non-trivial task.

At times I feel very alone, against a tide that privileges the social over the contemplative.
Sandra’s paper speaks beautifully to the need for a balance between these two different ways of meaning making,

“Strikingly, theorizing about digital technologies has led us to recognize many habitual subjects of research as figures against fields that are also worthy of study. Communication, for example, becomes visible only against the field of silence. Silence is critically important for the construction of reality – and the social construction of reality has a complement, the also necessary contemplative construction of reality.”

Yet, we do not act in the world as if these two realms where equally valuable. Instead, we seek ways to distract ourselves when a rare moment of contemplation becomes available in a busy day. We are born to distraction and must cultivate attention. So Sandra encourages us all to protect our moments of silence,

“Finding ways to protect silence as an arena of personal and social choice is particularly poignant […] at this frontier moment for the human species.”

This put me in mind of the idea that attention and how we use it is a moral and a political act. Iain McGilchrist synthesises this well when he tells us that “Attention is a moral act: it creates, brings aspects of things into being, but in doing so makes other recede.” Attentional choices often requires us to work against habit and ease, we need to become contemplation activists. Fighting to ‘protect silence as a personal and social choice’ often means taking the inconvenient course of action. Why bother?

We bother because we are losing the battle with mind chatter. We are being weighed down by too much information and too few inconvenient choices. Our mind chatter has become an inner landfill and unless we cultivate attention, distraction will win and our cognition will (is already?) suffer. We want permanence and yet all we have is a reality that is dialectical in nature; oppositional constructs that are held in tension and, paradoxically, only temporarily permanent. Silence and conversation. Stillness and movement. The social and the contemplative. And we see this flow over time only if we cultivate our attention and stop being seduced by distraction.

So I am now calling myself a contemplation activist. I remind myself daily that:

  • I need to cultivate fluidity to see background and foreground beyond motivated reasoning
  • I should ask: What is not being attended to?
  • Remember to pause to see the world as it presents itself to the eye not just seek to impose a shape on it
  • Mind chatter is the boundary of conscious and unconscious, I train the mind to access it when I cultivate silence and pause
  • Else, fast will always win

These ideas are summed up from the work of David Levy who I also have to thank for the term Contemplation Activist. I highly recommend that you read his work as well as Sandra’s article if these ideas appeal to you.

This is not about picking ‘the right way’; it is about living with ambiguity and impermanence,

Dialectically, social and contemplative practices can oscillate, feeding into each other, as a cycle of activity and respite; a pulse for everyday life. Mara Adelman

We need silence to hear the pulse of everyday life oscillating moment to moment. So how do we bring contemplation (back) to the fore?

  • Know we embody the obsolete in mind chatter – train the mind
  • Protect silence as a personal and social choice – inconvenient choices
  • Anthropomorphising the clock to blame it for our lack of time, brings only temporary relief
  • Every decision excludes (or should) as much as it includes

David Levy talks about how he tackles distraction one student at a time. I say that is a worthy goal not just for my teaching but also the rest of my life – tackle distraction one moment at a time by privileging the pause a little more often each day.

By Mariana Funes, May 2017
Braman, S. (2007). When nightingales break the law: Silence and the construction of reality. Ethics and Information Technology, 9(4), 281-295.
Funes, M (2017) The contemplative construction of reality. Haiku Deck created for my students. You can find it here:
Funes, M. (2017) The contemplative construction of reality.

The importance of community for balancing self-doubt and omnipotence

When we are at our strongest and most resilient our sense of needing others diminishes. It feels, rather deceptively I have found out, as though we are the masters of our own destiny. As both an academic, and in the past as a student, I have had times when things just feel under my control, that I am behind the steering wheel  and I can make things go my way. Whilst this can feel wonderful at times, I have come to see that without awareness it can have negative side effects. Firstly, I no longer have a sense of how much others contribute to my life, I lose sense of their contributions, whether personally or professionally, rendering me unseeing and ungrateful (not completely perhaps but it certainly reduces my capacity to be so).

More recently, I have noticed that this sense of personal power also significantly diminishes my capacity for compassion for others – I can sort my life out so why can’t they? The last sixth months have taught me much but how this sense of control and self-determination is deeply illusory and that I can be good and generous and kind and work really hard but that this does not make me immune from that which I fear.

This got me thinking about higher education and how as both teachers (and increasingly for students) there is considerable pressure to build up a personal ‘brand’ to prove our ‘expertise’ and I worry that this pressure leads to us having to appear more sure about what we know and what our skills are than we perhaps actually are. I am concerned that the creation of personal brands over values our strengths and forces us to move too quickly from unknowing, that place of exploration and openness, to ‘expert’.

There is a balance here though. When I feel vulnerable I look at my staff profile, research gate, blog, whatever it is, and feel like a complete fraud – trying to work alongside people who I revere and feeling unworthy of doing so. Whilst when feeling powerful and in control I am perhaps a little more seduced than I should be, by the sense of knowing exactly where I am going and believing it is completely within my power to ensure my ‘success’. I don’t expect that this dance between deep doubt and naïve certainty will end anytime soon, but I have noticed how community can help me navigate the choreography rather more skilfully.

I have particularly noticed this in recent months, how friendly conversations with colleagues can make me feel valued even if I am struggling to see my own self-worth. How reaching out to help someone else can help break unhelpful thought patterns. One thing that has stood out however, about the contemplative pedagogy community in particular, is that it helps me manage not only vulnerability and insecurity, through its warmth and generosity, but it also helps me to notice and be mindful of when I get a bit too sure and confident. The depth of open questioning and exploration and the value given to others’ contributions is a healthy counterbalance to the need for a personal brand that puts forward a successful, coherent account of ourselves as self-made individuals.

I am therefore hugely looking forward to the upcoming contemplative pedagogy event at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh organised by Iddo Oberski. It will be a rare opportunity for emails, phone calls and skype meetings to be swapped for hugely valuable face to face interaction. A time to explore my uncertainty and questions, help others do the same and as such come to know myself in connection with others, as part of a community, rather than as a lonely individual trying to shout louder than everyone else on twitter!

Looking forward to seeing some of you there.

Best wishes Caroline




Confused? Bewildered? Teach!

To be honest I have struggled to know what to write on this blog for a few weeks now. I am still waiting for some inspiring bolt of lightning. When I consider all the things I could write about, and look at the burgeoning resources on contemplative education, I just feel a bit bewildered and lost at the moment.

But I think that is the overarching theme of 2016 – bewilderment. A sense of deep vulnerability and groundlessness – waking up after the Brexit vote, and again after the US election, dealing with challenging discussions about changes in my department as well as interesting changes in my home life.

This morning I have got to thinking that this sense of bewilderment has an interesting quality to it – it is accompanied by a sense of impotence, a ‘not knowing’. In effect I am stopped in my tracks and can no longer carry on with the illusion that I know exactly what I am doing and how to make everything better. As a teacher I think this is profoundly valuable experience. It is humbling and reminds us of what it is like to be perplexed and to not understand what is in front of us. Furthermore, if we can find within ourselves the patience and skills necessary to sit with that impotence, frustration and bewilderment then we can start to open up the space of not knowing for our students, enabling deep  understanding to emerge. This is what contemplative practice is really for.

Beware then the teacher with all the answers! I think bewilderment is an important formative experience in the life of a teacher. I have just remembered that almost exactly two years ago I wrote a blog in which I mentioned bewilderment using this quote:

“Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment.”
― Rumi, Masnavi i Man’avi, the spiritual couplets of Maula

Clearly this sunk in for me to return to it now!

One thing to consider however is how we can use the experience of bewilderment to serve us, as a creative process rather than it sinking us and leading us into despair. For me my meditation practice has been central to creating a space to sit with the ‘not knowing’. It has supported my ability to sit quietly with discomfort and to resist the temptation for constant distraction. However, equally important has been keeping in mind the values that guide my life, with compassion and generosity being upper most. The Pali word ‘Sati’ which is commonly translated as ‘mindfulness’ in English, is not only about being present in the moment it also encapsulates bearing in mind our intentions. I have found this ‘bearing in mind’ very helpful, particularly when  I do not know what I should do and everything feels quite hopeless, if I can bring my intention to mind it is always possible to find ways of acting with kindness and compassion. I think this stops me from throwing in the towel and just giving up. It helps me avoid the ‘everything is such a mess so what’s the point’ mentality. It also keeps open lines of communication and creates space for creative ways forward.

That is not to say there is often a fairy tale ending (even at Christmas!) but it does mean I can stay (relatively) sane and hopefully help others along the way including my students. I am not sure there is much more I can do, bewildered or not!

Festive wishes





The ‘compassion gap’ in higher education and the role of contemplative pedagogy

This blog has been inspired by a paper by Kathryn Waddington called ‘The compassion gap in UK universities’ which was sent to me by my colleague Mary Kennedy. The paper was written in response to the author’s unexpected experience of anger when she publicly drew attention to the disjuncture between the focus on compassion in health professions training and the lack of compassion in the culture of the institutions that carry out that training. Having spent much time of the last few months organising our one day compassion conference the issue of compassion in HE has been very much on my mind too.

Waddington’s paper (2016: 5) identifies ‘a dissonance, discord and a dark side to life inside universities’ and highlights the features of higher education which inhibit the development  of a compassionate culture. For those of us engaged in the training of future health professionals this is particularly worrying  – are we asking students to model a way of being that is not embedded in their training? However, that we think this is  more relevant for health professions courses than others, is itself reflective of the increasingly instrumental and individualistic aims of modern education. Why is compassion and the idea of service to others in society not considered important throughout our education, in all that we are taught? Einstein stated (Cited in Shernoff 2013: 25):

“…The aim (of education) must be the training of independently acting and thinking individuals, who, however, see in the service of the community their highest life problem.”

Wendell Berry (1987: 77 cited in Palmer and Zajonc (2010)) raised a similar point:

“The thing being made in a university is humanity…[W]hat universities…are mandated to make or to help to make is human beings in the fullest sense of those words – not just trained workers or knowledgeable citizens but responsible heirs and members of human culture”

If we are to take these aims seriously, creating a culture of compassion in higher education is imperative. We need to create a space for learning and teaching in which our responsibilities to ourselves, to each other and the world around us are central to our teaching, and more importantly, are central to how we teach and interact in HE institutions.

Waddington makes several suggestions in the paper about how to create more compassionate institutions. Like her, I too see other academics and colleagues who are incredibly compassionate in their work and this often comes through in the feedback from students about the teaching on our courses. I see colleagues supporting each other, rallying around in the face of difficult personal circumstances, offering to help out when it is not in their job description to do so. But then too I find myself in what I experience as the uncompassionate world of deadlines, work load, student numbers, performance, REF, TEF, publication etc.

And yet, paradoxically, despite my fear that compassion could be considered a pink and fluffy educational extra, I  believe that without the opportunity to explore compassion and our inherent interconnectivity, whether as a nurse or a physicist, there is something fundamentally missing from our ‘education’. Contemplative pedagogy has much to say about this in terms of how we teach this to students but equally emphasises the importance of embodying what it is that we wish to teach.

Whilst, as Waddington suggests,  we do need leaders who value compassion and are able to act compassionately we also need to recognise that everyday we individually contribute to the culture that we work in. Waddington describes how we need new stories and I would add that we need to make those new stories manifest in change. I have noticed how some of the stories I tell myself about work can omit the positive aspects of my experience. This is not to say we should all sit with our heads buried in the sand pretending we love our jobs and we love everyone we work with. But actually stories of how awful everything is can become habit,  neither accurately reflecting the challenges and difficulties of our work or portraying the positive aspects of our institutions either. This means that not only do we not see compassion and kindness but neither can we effectively challenge the status quo or respond skillfully and with compassion when challenges arise. We are rendered impotent (and often miserable too).

One of the dangers around some of the dialogue I have seen about positive psychology, that we have explored before  on this blog, is that of excessively individualising people’s experience of distress leading to failure to look at the contextual factors which contribute to it. Clearly there are contextual factors which contribute to the ‘compassion gap’ in UK universities that need to be addressed. But we can also take steps to explore how we relate to ourselves, our students and colleagues and identify the opportunities for new stories.

Warm wishes Caroline


Shernoff, D.J. (2013) Aims of Education Revisited (Einstein’s E = MC2 of Education). In Optimal Learning Environments to Promote Student Engagement. Advancing Responsible Adolescent Development. [Online]. Springer New York. pp. 25–45.
Berry, W. (1987) The Loss of the University. In Home Economics. [Online]. North Point Press. p.

The value of space in the development of compassion

Hello everyone

I have been working for several months now with a great group of colleagues on the organisation of a one day conference – Compassion, Organisational Change and the Future of Care that took place on Friday 2nd September at the University of Essex. Predominantly it was attended by employees of North Essex Partnership University NHS Trust and South Essex Partnership University NHS Trust, who had kindly funded the event, but we welcomed attendees from across the UK including an interesting range of practitioners, educators and researchers. For the full programme see here.

What really struck me on the day was the level of energy and commitment in the room. The number of questions and quality of discussion that arose throughout the day suggested that the event had created the space for conversations that were really needed, that hadn’t previously had sufficient space to emerge. In the group discussion that I facilitated it was evident that the presentations earlier in the day had provided new perspectives as well as giving voice to underlying issues, such as resource scarcity and the political nature of health care, which in turn gave attendees the confidence to explore them.  It was very difficult to take account of everyone’s views in the time allowed, but it was soon evident that each person was processing the day in their own unique way; coming to their own understanding of what the day meant to them and how this would emerge in terms of their own compassionate care.

The day of the conference has made me see the value of having conversations, of listening and being open about our experience. I can see how trying to  move too quickly towards ‘solutions’ on how to deliver compassionate care will inevitably silence certain voices, whilst constraining the capacity of individuals to engage in ways that are meaningful for them. To think and talk about compassion inevitably requires us to touch upon the more vulnerable aspects of our humanity – our wish for others to be compassionate towards us, how it feels when they are not and the difficult recognition that there are times that we too are uncompassionate. These are not abstract concepts that necessitate abstract intellectual exploration (although new theoretical perspectives can be valuable) they are unavoidable elements of the human experience that can be understood more fully through dialogue with each other. It may have only been me but I felt a sense of relief to engage in honest and open conversations about sensitive issues that often get overlooked in the busyness of professional life. By embodying what we are trying to create, these conversations could be of more value in the creation of a compassionate culture that any external initiative.

I am reminded of a recent blog by Omid Safi called ‘The disease of being busy’. He notes that being busy all the time ‘keeps us from forming the kind of community that we all so desperately crave’. He goes on:

‘Put your hand on my arm, look me in the eye, and connect with me for one second. Tell me something about your heart, and awaken my heart. Help me remember that I too am a full and complete human being, a human being who also craves a human touch.’

But this requires space – spatially, temporary, mentally. We created this during the day, especially in the Schwartz Round but in many other ways too –  over sandwiches and coffee on the grass, whilst meditating together in the lecture hall, in the quiet moments of reflection. Again I am reminded not to underestimate the value of space in learning, the need for authentic dialogue and discussion, particularly perhaps with something as ineffable yet fundamental as compassion.









Silence as a response

Hello everyone

I know that I don’t normally write two blogs so close together but I have been inspired by two things:

1) an interesting blog by Parker Palmer that addressed questions that I didn’t know I had about responding  to world events that leave me feeling perplexed and fearful.

2) whilst writing a commissioned article on mindfulness and self-compassion for nurses I found a great open access resource you might be interested in.


I guess I am not the only one who feels more and more perplexed by recent reports of violence, extremism and instability. I feel lost, fearful and completely without words. It feels that my response is one of silence and I often feel frustrated by this. Then I came across Parker Palmer’s column on Krista Tippett’s blog ‘On Being’ in which he talks about how, recently, rather than engaging in the ‘internet frenzy’ of responses to such events, his response has been silence:

‘If I want to find words and actions that might be life-giving and serve the common good, I need to reclaim my true self and recover my true voice. So I’ve been embracing the silence that has descended upon me’

It made me reflect on the importance of providing students with the opportunity to experience silence – to know that there is a spaciousness there that can be experienced. That we do not always have to make noise, to know the answer or to have an opinion. It has taken me a long time to find this – I wish someone had introduced me to it earlier! I also found solace in finding an expression of the vulnerability that can arise in response to world events.  This also came up recently, talking with colleagues about the EU referendum, which led to unexpected powerful, emotional reactions.


On a more practical note, while writing today, I have discovered a very interesting document by Shinzen Young called ‘What is mindfulness ?’. I have not yet read it in-depth but it addresses the complexity around mindfulness in a clear and direct way. It has also given me some ideas for new ways of expressing my thoughts about mindfulness as well as new ways to teach it. There is also a section on his conceptualisation of mindfulness which he discusses in relation to the scientific and spiritual domains.

Warm wishes Caroline


A visit to Eichstätt

I hope this finds you all well. I thought I would just share some thoughts on a recent conference in Germany.

It was my great pleasure to be invited by Prof. Karla Jensen to speak at the Mindfulness in Education conference at University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt last week. The event was organised by Prof. Heiner Boettger and his friendly and efficient team. When Karla got in touch, she asked me if during my talk I would put mindfulness in context by introducing contemplative pedagogy, discussing its relation to mindfulness as well as talking about what I have been experimenting with in my own teaching.  Below is a video of my powerpoint presentation which has the presentation audio too (For some mysterious reason the title slide displayed is not the presentation that follows so just press play – it becomes clear!)  I have also included a PDF file of my slides in case you cannot access the video.

Contemplative Pedagogy Intro, University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, C Barratt (PDF)

I was very impressed by the commitment and enthusiasm of those who attended, many of whom were training to be teachers. There was a lot of interesting debate and discussion throughout the day. Karlheinz Valtl from the University of Vienna gave an excellent presentation which looked at different models of mindfulness and highlighted some very important resources for those interested in bringing mindfulness into the classroom – the most relevant of which I will add to the resource page of this blog. There was one book that particularly stood out:

I have not yet got my copy, but a significant proportion of the book is dedicated to describing mindfulness exercises for use in education, including HE so I am looking forward to getting it. If you already have this text have you found it useful?

Karlheinz’s presentation and the others will be included in a conference proceedings document which will be made available in due course – I will provide a link on this blog once that happens.

It was great to share ideas with new people and to hear about the challenges at all levels of education, not just HE. One learning point that stands out for me was during a group discussion we were talking about what happens if students in a class don’t want to participate, if they resist what we are trying to do. I explained that I always remind students that participation is optional and I have certainly seen students choose to ‘sit out’ during class mindfulness exercises. Then another group member remarked ‘if you are not making them do anything, there is nothing for them to resist!’ I loved this way of putting it!!

Warm wishes Caroline


Reflections on Contemplative Pedagogy and Open Space Technology at Queen Margaret University

Sorry for the delay in getting to this blog it has been rather hectic since returning from a  ‘Growing Contemplative Practices in HE?’ at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh on 22nd April but I did want to share some thoughts on it.

Iddo Oberski let me know a few months before the event that he had chosen to use Open Space Technology to frame the day. No formal presentations, no pre-planned events, no specific topics to cover – everything would manifest on the day depending on who was there and what they wanted to get from the day. I admit to initally being nervous about this – would people attend an event without an explicit objective asked my inner strategic learner? Would the day be productive for me?

I needn’t have worried. I enjoyed making deicions about what I wanted to do and what I wanted to learn, not having to sit politely through presentations that weren’t relevant, able to take time out as I wished to walk around the lake without considering myself to be ‘lazy’.

What stood out from the day for me was everyone’s wholehearted commitment. I had many very valuable conversations that have deepened my appreciation of the applicability and potential of contemplative pedagogy in higher education as well as the challenges that we face and the questions that accompany this pedagogic approach. I was particuarly excited by the number of people with an interest in health professional education.

Having thought about my own experience and reflected on some of the notes from the day that Iddo has shared, these are the key points and questions I am taking away with me:

  • The importance of not isolating contemplative pedagogy from other ways of teaching but seeing it as an important addition and counterbalance. Ensuring that the decision to use contemplative practice in teaching has a sound pedagogical underpinning – why is this way of teaching this the most appropriate?
  • What is the relevance of contemplative pedagogy for higher education staff? This was discussed in relation to wellbeing as well as its possible impact on creativity in teaching and curriculum development, by creating the space to think and explore often lacking in modern HE. I also think that it may help facilitate relationships and dialogue between colleagues by allowing for meaningful connection. Furthermore, it was mentioned in several different discussion groups that if we are going to start asking students to engage in contemplative practice we need to be willing to do so ourselves.
  • How can contempative pedagogy create space for the heart in the HE classroom? This aspect if very important to me because through focusing on the development of the intellect and critical thinking  the emotional reality of people’s lives are left outside of the classroom despite how important our emotions are for guiding our decision making and for how we experience our lives. I had a bit of a revelation during this discussion about how far I have to go in this regard, how often I resort to certain ways of being in my work environment and in the classroom that don’t reflect the values I would like to see emerge in HE! But I guess we have to start where we are, and I increasingly realise that if I can be more accepting of myself and the system I work within, I will see both more clearly and then stand a better chance of creating positive change.
  • How is contemplative pedagogy relevant to health professional education? This is something I am keen to explore as I think it could help us address some pertinent issues. For example – how do we improve the resilience of future health professionals? How can we teach compassion?

There are many points to pick up on – I would love it if people would comment below or even write a short blog that I can post.

Lastly, I had several discussions about organising some kind of longer event, maybe over a few days next year that would include more open space time as well as workshops and presentations on contemplative pedagogy. Do let me know if this would be of interest.

If you have any particular resources that were mentioned on the day that you would like me to add to the resource page I’d also like to hear from you.

Warm wishes Caroline






Exploring Labyrinths

I’d like to thank Jan Sellers for taking the time to contribute this blog about Labyrinths. I hope you will all find it thought provoking. Do get in touch with Jan if you’d like more details (her website details are below). Warm wishes, Caroline.


I spent last Friday evening crawling around on a church roof in the rain, lending a hand with the installation of a labyrinth of light: a light projection onto the ground, an open space immediately in front of St. Giles Cripplegate Church at the heart of the Barbican, London. A faulty projector or bulb has now delayed this project, but if you are in the vicinity between dusk and 10pm before 23 March, it is well worth a look to see if Jim Buchanan’s beautiful installation is up and running.

This is just one of the intriguing places I’ve found myself in recent years, exploring labyrinths (see the World Wide Labyrinth Locator for labyrinths in your neighbourhood). Unlike a maze, a labyrinth has just one path to the centre, with the same path to return by. The labyrinth path offers a peaceful, meditative experience. Some colleagues will remember labyrinth walks at the University of Westminster, the University of Kent and other academic settings in recent years. Often regarded as a path for spiritual development, the labyrinth can also be used to deepen reflection and support the creative process. It can offer a place of quietness and tranquility, an apparently simple yet powerful contrast to the haste and noise of everyday life.

I first encountered the labyrinth in 2007, when I read that the Chaplain at the University of Edinburgh had introduced labyrinth walking as a contemplative space for students and staff of all faiths and none. Building on this example, with funding through my National Teaching Fellowship, a labyrinth project came into being at Kent. Just as in Edinburgh, interest grew to the extent that a permanent labyrinth was built. I love this link between the two universities and two very different, peaceful spaces: the Edinburgh Labyrinth and the Canterbury Labyrinth.

In 2010, we hosted a labyrinth facilitator training event at Kent with an American organisation, Veriditas, and I have since trained with them to advanced level. I have recently been accepted to lead their one-day “pre-qualifying” workshops, completion of which enables participants to apply for their facilitator training weekends (currently the best short course training available in this field). I am offering my first such workshop in Birmingham on 30 March at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre (which has residential facilities), immediately followed by a highly informal ‘Labyrinth Study Day’ on 31 March, when I’m bringing along my growing collection of labyrinth books and articles for people to browse, on themes including health, education, wellbeing and spiritual development. I’ll be there as a friendly guide!

Over the last ten years I’ve found many examples of innovative practice. This has inspired a new book, coming out April-May: Learning with the Labyrinth: Creating Reflective Space in Higher Education (Jan Sellers and Bernard Moss, eds; Palgrave Macmillan, Spring 2016). We are delighted that this book is part of Palgrave’s Teaching and Learning Series. Around 30 contributors have shared their experiences of introducing labyrinths in university settings in seven different countries, in disciplines ranging from Midwifery to Media Studies.

There will be an opportunity to find out more at the Contemplative Pedagogy event at Queen Margaret University this April. Or you could explore my website, where you can find my contact details.

Telling students to be compassionate isn’t enough…

I hope that this finds you all well. I wanted to share some thoughts on my visit to Warwick Medical School a few weeks ago. I was invited to go and speak at Warwick Medical School’s Mindfulness Society by Dr Majid Kahn (who was kind enough to write a blog about teaching mindfulness on here a few months ago). In particular Majid had asked me to talk about compassion, its relation to mindfulness and its importance in studying and health care practice.

I started by talking about what I consider to the be the ‘compassion imperative’ in  higher education more broadly and then in health professional education specifically. If, in education, the mind is being taught to the exclusion of the heart, and I know I am not alone in thinking that it is, this is not only a problem for those who choose to study to become a health or social care professional. I therefore wanted to establish the breadth of the issue from the outset.

I then talked about what contemplative pedagogy is. The issue of how we teach health care professionals to become compassionate care givers is an area where I strongly believe (and hope over time to evidence) that contemplative pedagogy can make a very valuable contribution to students learning. I therefore used several contemplative exercises during the evening to provide a glimpse of an alternative way of understanding and getting in touch with compassion that goes beyond conceptual understanding which in isolation risks reducing  compassion to another key performance indicator (these exercises are detailed in the slides below). I also gave a brief  description of the course I have developed here at Essex called ‘Developing as a Compassionate Pracitioner’ to provide a practical example of how contemplative pedgaogy can be applied.

At Majid’s request I also spoke about compassion in the context of studying, particularly in competitive environments such as medical school. I was surprised by how easy it was to draw on my own experience in this regard and how my own contemplative practice and the insight this has provided has led to a much greater ability to connect and work with others without feeling either threatened by their apparent greatness, or superior due to my own imagined brilliance! In preparing for the talk I noticed how our judgement of others and ourselves is a huge block to compassion – not just because we might not ‘be nice’ but because allowing compassion to develop threatens the very hierarchy we construct.

The discussion during the evening was very interesting. One question that has stayed with me was about whether we need all health professionals to be compasionate. The example given was that a surgeon’s career is defined largely by his technical skill and not compassion. But even more importantly – would you choose a surgeon that was compassionate but was less technically skilled or the one who has the best outcomes but was not compassionate? Whilst my immediate reaction is surely we can have both, I think it raises a really important point.

Here is a PDF of the presentation slides, I also hope to have an audio recording of the evening to share in due course. Many thanks to Majid for asking me.

Telling students to be compassionate is not enough…

I am now off on holiday for a week and plan to stay away from my computer as much as possible! I will respond to comments and questions when I get back.

Warm wishes Caroline