The focus of this blog was the workshop organised by a University of Essex student society the ‘Awakening Society’ which teaches meditation and invites speakers from different spiritual traditions. I was asked to run a workshop which introduced students to the idea of contemplative pedagogy. This was arranged as an evening event. Although attendance was low, only 4 students, we ran 35 mins overtime due to the richness of sharing and discussion. The students were all male but from a variety of disciplines – philosophy, environmental studies, and two from business management and economics. I included a 5 minute breath awareness practice, 10 minute ‘hand beholding’ (mindful, looking and sensing of their hand) and a deep reflection exercise.
I first introduced the concept of contemplative pedagogy. They were particularly interested in discussing mindfulness. They seemed to relate to the concept of continuous partial attention (CPA) and we explored the different ways we were constantly distracted from what we’re doing. They reported feeling more relaxed and focused after the breath awareness meditation and one student said that being able to do that before class would be beneficial to him.
The ‘hand beholding’ exercise was something I had not done before so I did not know what to expect. Although the students reported feeling a little uncomfortable and worried about looking silly, they seemed to take the task seriously and in feeding back listed many things they had not noticed about their hands before and how this illustrated to them the broader lack of attention in their life – particularly around small things that happen everyday.
The deep reflection exercise started with a period of breath awareness to draw their attention inward. Then they were instructed to let go of the focus and relax their attention, creating an open and receptive mind. I then ‘dropped in’ these phrases:
Whilst studying at university I have become…
Whilst studying my view of the world has changed because…
During my remaining time at university I aspire to…
I would repeat each one 3 times allowing several minutes of silence between each phrase during which time they were invited to just allow whatever their response was to arise. They were told not to grasp for answer. I allowed approximately 5 minutes after the practice ended to write down anything they wanted to record during which they were silent.
I have never attempted this exercise with a group before but have often found similar practices helpful myself. One of the students noted how he had wanted to try to ‘think’ of an answer but that it was enjoyable to think there was no ‘right’ answer and he could just see what arose. The phrases seemed very poignant. All of the students spoke to a shifting sense of self whilst at university this included getting older, having to grow up, imagining life outside university and in the work place. Other themes that arose included self-awareness, increased self acceptance and deep questioning around the concept of ‘self’. We also spoke about how sometimes it is difficult to live up to the ideals we set for ourselves, the things that we aspire to and how we can react when in a group and we don’t wish to get caught up in others behaviour.
Other things we spoke about included knowledge, specially education as a means of employment and not learning. This was expressed in the frustration of the philosophy student who described wanting to become a better person through his studies not simply to find a job.
Overall my sense was that the students really enjoyed the opportunity to explore their experience in a different way which in turn created a really fresh, challenging and enriching opportunity for me as a teacher. It was also hugely encouraging that some of the things that I have been reading about can manifest into such a vibrant, satisfying reality! This has really reinforced my sense that contemplative pedagogy is relevant to higher education and the lives of students today.
I have included the powerpoint presentation below for interest (I didn’t really use this much because the workshop took its own course!).
Best wishes Caroline