Contemplation in the time of Corona

How quickly the world has changed! I am finding it a very humbling experience. It is certainly making our interdependence and vulnerability abundantly clear.

It has got me thinking about contemplative pedagogy in moments of profound change and insecurity. I hope that we can start to explore ideas collectively so please do feel free to contribute in the comments below.

Creativity from uncertainty

It’s when we lose the illusion of control—when we’re most vulnerable and exposed—that we can discover the creative potential of our lives.

Pema Khandro Rinpoche, The Four Essential Points of Letting Go in the Bardo

If Pema Khandro Rinpoche is accurate, and in my experience she is, then we are in one of the most collectively creative times we have known for many years. However, if this creativity is to manifest we need to find ways to be with the anxiety and fear that naturally arises in response to uncertainty. For many, contemplative practice, in whatever form that may take, is a way of making space, becoming aware and learning from our embodied experience as human beings.

As educators what we do and who we are becoming matters because our students are watching, particularly in these frightening times. At the heart of contemplative pedagogy is the willingness and courage of educators and students to stay in touch with the openness, vulnerability and beauty that are unveiled through contemplation. During difficult times this becomes especially important. Everyday life with its endless distractions and strivings pulls us in different, task orientated directions particularly when we are fearful. This can leave little space to acknowledge what is really going on making it difficult for educators and students alike to respond creatively. It is about balance of course, we need to engage in the tasks of life and our work in the world, but it is easy to shut down, disconnect and lose perspective.

Sitting with the whole catastrophe

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to the violence of our times.

Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

Contemplative practices may then have a particular potency at times of uncertainty. I have found this individually to be true and now wonder about the collective potential in the face of this global threat. Taking time whether to meditate or write a reflection for example, can help us to avoid the violence that Merton describes above. When we feel out of control contemplation can provide a space for the vulnerability we feel to be held, explored and loved.

As educators the work we do with our students in these times must first and foremost be acts of compassion and generosity with their safety paramount. Given the move away from face-to-face teaching we know less than ever about the environments in which our students are learning. When considering contemplative practice with students in this context we need to ensure that engaging in practice is always by way of invitation and is backed up with appropriate support. I for one have been surprised by my tearfulness in meditation this week. When I am quiet my vulnerability makes itself known. I have done it long enough to not be perturbed by this but it important not to expect this of others, especially those of whom we know little.

Looking in and reaching out

At times of uncertainty it is important to maintain our practices for looking inwards and developing awareness so that we retain a sense of own values, intention and purpose. Yet when we are anxious and fearful it can be difficult to do this, even though it is when we need it the most. We need to heed Merton’s warning and not get too caught up in the doing of things. I have noticed how easy it has been, particularly when working from home, to get caught up in frantically checking the news, email or Twitter or purchasing things on ebay. It is as though the energy of my anxiety has to go somewhere and it is remarkably challenging to get it to go somewhere constructive!

Having warned against getting caught up in habitual patterns of ‘doing’, it is important to recognise that some of us over the next few months will see a significant increase in the demands placed upon us. Health and care professionals will be under intense pressure over the next few months. Some of us will engage in volunteering in our communities or be under more pressure at work or have to care for family members. So this is not a call to cut off in a contemplative bubble but to create moments of quietness and creativity for our ourselves and our students that enable us all to reach out into the world with greater awareness and compassion and learn to notice what we need to take care of ourselves and others.

How we will each perform this dance and how it will manifest in our teaching will be unique. These are uncomfortable times on many levels but my experience within the Contemplative Pedagogy Network, and the contemplative pedagogy community more widely, is that we collectively hold a lot of knowledge and experience that is highly relevant to the current situation. Let’s find ways to share this and support each other.

With love

Caroline; Felipe Esquivel Reed

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