‘The day you find out why’ – Purpose, Contemplation and Transformational Learning

Dave Tullett, Integral Development Coach

davetullett16@gmail.com

‘The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why’.

(Quote popularly attributed to Mark Twain)

I open my workshop – ‘Exploring Purpose’ – with this quote because it speaks to me about choice.  Admittedly, you don’t have much choice about the first, but you do have choice about how you want to live life and what you will do to explore and uncover your ‘Why’.  Through my work, mainly with executives, I have noticed that all too few of us have found the time, space or energy to discover and pursue our ‘why’, our purpose.  I believe contemplative practices can create a space and a source of raw materials for this type of ‘inner work’.

Here I’ll share the thinking and intention behind my session; it’s relationship to contemplative practices, especially reflection and imagination; and what I have learned about using this type of approach in an executive (adult) education setting.

The session, is quite simple and is built around three connected contemplative practices:

  • Ikigai – I ask participant to reflect on their work and life using the Japanese framework of four overlapping circles – What you like? What are you good at?; What does the world need?; What can you get paid for?  Your Ikigai is your life’s value, what gets you out of bed each day and is found at the centre of the overlapping circles.  Executives like this framework, because it gives structure and I like it because it offers a very visible expression of the balance in an individual’s life.
  • Visualisation – Using a mountain metaphor, I ask participants to re-acquaint themselves with some of their formative experiences.  More detail below.
  • Metaphor – An image or metaphor that captures the essence of what they have learned about themselves from these reflective exercises.  A reflective practice in itself.  Metaphors include: shining moons; flag bearers; lighthouses; and one even suggested the fatty underbelly of a tuna (an expensive cut).

Visualisation

I developed this exercise with Dr Andrew White from Oxford University, as part of a transformational workshop called Mountain to Mountain.  In this exercise participants are invited to access the imagination, the mind’s eye and to re-visit and re-cast some of the lived experiences that have shaped their ‘world-view’. The mountain is a metaphor for their life and career.  I ask them to place themselves on the mountainside, at the point they think they are in their life.  I’m at pains to encourage them to think about the path in terms of the progress they feel they have made towards achieving the dreams and goals they set themselves at the outset of their career.  By connecting to the memories of these earlier goals, they start a process of reflecting on and taking stock of their current situation. 

The invitation is to look down the mountain and see events and people that have shaped how they see the world and their role and purpose in it.  I invite them to thank people who have helped and people who have been difficult or obstructive.  We then look up at the various paths that might lie ahead for them.  Paths of service and purpose or wasteland.  I ask them to think about the qualities they will need to develop and the support they need to succeed in bringing purpose to life.  I finish the visualisation, by inviting them to look around – ‘Is this where you want to be?’. 

In the group debrief I have heard many profound and moving recollections of events of ‘good’ people that have helped shape the individual’s sense of purpose.  What is fascinating, is that many describe having the sudden realisation that the ‘awkward’ colleague or boss taught them something important about life or leadership.  On reflection, they recognise that they owe this person a debt of gratitude too.

This is a learning experience not a lecture, and can take executives out of their comfort zone.  I encourage them to notice the emotion and sensations that discomfort creates.  To receive it, sit with it, and then get curious about where it comes from and how they normally (habitually) respond to that emotion.  Finally, I’m asking them to reflect on how they might make more effective choices about how to use the energy discomfort generates.

I’m after a ‘vertical’ learning experience, not about adding skills, but about expanding and experimenting with perspectives and bringing the whole human into the learning process.   A chance to open to the possibilities that ‘not knowing’ offers and an encouragement to develop curiosity, imagination and courage.  It’s also a way to explore the assumptions, perspectives and beliefs that sit beneath the surface of our everyday habits of mind.

The exercise asks participants to re-frame their lived experiences, to see what else these might offer, what new possibility might be uncovered.  In plenary we make a space where they can share insights, moments of personal discovery and unfolding, and collectively make sense of their experiences. 

And of course, I am hoping that the combination of reflective exercises will offer them a gateway to some sort of transformational learning experience.  Enabling them to: reflect without judgment on where they find themselves, relative to where they planned to be; re-assess the way they have constructed their reality and how that influences their world-view; and, as Mezirow (1990, p 13) suggests, have them re-calibrate their ‘own orientation to perceiving, knowing, believing, feeling and acting’.

I have noticed that there are several conditions that shape the quality of the contemplative experience and each one has something to do with courage.

Students, in this case executives, have to be courageous enough to move from passive consumption of content to an active engagement with their own experience and its influence on their world-view.  To quote Mezirow they have to be willing to engage with a process “of using a prior interpretation to construe a new or revised interpretation of the meaning of one’s experience in order to guide future action” (Mezirow 1996, p. 162).  Not everyone is (yet) ready for this process.

The contemplative practitioner has to muster the courage to let go of the certainty and power that ‘Teacher’ suggests and adopt a much more uncertain (and difficult to name) role.  There is no lecture plan, no cause and effect, stuff (some of it difficult) emerges.  It takes time and patience to get comfortable with this discomfort.

Finally, sponsors need to be prepared to take a risk, again shifting from the safety and certainty of content and a focus on skillsets to include a focus on experience and shifting mindsets.  I have been extremely fortunate to have sponsors who have the courage to support contemplative practices not as an alternative to content and traditional teaching methods but as a complement to them.

In applying these practices, I’m hoping to help others get a glimpse of that ‘second day’, the day they find out Why they were born.

References

Mezirow, J. (1990). Fostering critical reflection in adulthood (pp. 1-20). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Mezirow, J. (1996). Contemporary paradigms of learning. Adult education quarterly, 46(3), 158-172.

Past, present and future

As part of my stepping away from the network and allowing it to evolve under new leadership I have been asked to share the story of ‘how it all happened’. I suggested that I write it up in a blog and this was warmly received. I hope it is useful and records with a modicum of accuracy what has manifested since the network’s inception in 2014.

Collecting data

I have spent sometime re-reading messages sent back in 2014, when I first thought about connecting with others to explore contemplative pedagogy. My sent message folder has acted as a repository to our very first communications. It has been delightful, whilst also slightly cringey, to note my enthusiasm, anxiety and fears from that early activity. It seems my recollection of the timeline for the development of network activities was a bit off and that we actually got the ball rolling much more quickly than I had expected.

First steps

In August 2014 I attended the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education (ACMHE) summer workshop at the Omega Institute. It was a ground-breaking few days for me. For the first time I experienced some integration of my personal contemplative practice with my professional life and identity as an educator. It felt like the jigsaw pieces fell into place.

When I got back I knew that I needed to build on what I had experienced. I felt contemplative pedagogy could have meaning for others and that the way forward was through community and collaboration.  I asked ACMHE if I could send an email to the UK academics on their membership list which I did at the end of August. Within a couple of hours of sending the email I had already had two people phone me – yes actually pick up the phone! Amazing! Six of us then met in London in early October 2014, Alasdair Honeyman, Jennifer Bright, Robert-Louis Abrahamson, Paul Breslaw and George Perry. After that meeting I wrote:

‘I am filled with beans today. A more positive version of ‘the morning after’!

To come into work and open such a lovely series of positive emails has been a joy and then to realise that the remaining chocolate that Alasdair kindly contributed was still in my handbag – I don’t think it gets better than that.

After that meeting I set up the JISCMail list and the blog and we started making plans for a one day event at Emerson College in November 2014. Between 2015 and 2017 we organised additional events at Emerson College supported by George Perry as well as at Queen Margaret University led by Iddo Oberski. Over this time the number of visitors to the blog and the members on the mailing list started to grow.

Becoming braver

In 2018 we started to run the annual four day symposium. This felt like a leap of faith as it involved some financial risk but I felt strongly that I wanted to arrange something that had the potential to really tap into the depth and richness of contemplative pedagogy. The two events that we ran face to face at Emerson College felt remarkable and the feedback we received suggested that these were truly transformative for many who attended. They certainly were for me. It felt as though those events took me to the edge of my own practice, tapping into a profound sense of my own vulnerability as well as inspiration and hope.  Even the symposia that had to move online had some magic to them. I am indebted to all those who worked on the organising team for these symposia – Iddo Oberski, Steven Stanley, Siobhan Lynch, Andrew Morgans, Naomi de la Tour, Lynne Wallace, Leanne McHugh, Lily-Rose Fitzmaurice and Lanaire Aderemi.

In March 2021 we had our first Contemplative Pedagogy Network Workshop arranged by Mike Wride, Anne Vicary, Juliet Trail and Andrew Morgans. Hopefully this will become a regular fixture in the network calendar providing an opportunity for members to explore their work with others and learn together.

Purpose and connection

I don’t think I have ever had a very precise sense of what the network is for but I did know that it was important. Nor have I ever felt qualified to be the person to be driving it forward. Without the  patient support of other people and the depth and authenticity of those connections it would never have got off the ground. I have just done what has felt right or necessary and tried to listen to those around me (and not be too controlling!). It felt as though some of my collaborators could sense my insecurities and fears and always met them with such kindness. That care will be my enduring sense of this work.

Moving forward

By the summer of 2021 it had become clear to me that I was not the person to lead the network into the future. I am not entirely clear why but I deeply know this to be the case. Of course, fear has been busy telling me not to let go of something I have worked so hard at and that has been surprisingly successful! But if contemplative pedagogy is to mean anything at all it only does so through committed practice and the application of that learning into our lives. So, I am ignoring the clamouring of the ego and instead choosing the peace of a decision that feels right in my heart.

I am pleased to say that two very kind people, Mike Wride and Juliet Trail, have come forward with a willingness to move things forward and engage with network members to explore the future of the network. I am still incredibly interested in contemplative pedagogy and hope that the time freed up from leading the network can be spent on my own reading, writing and research. I will remain an enthusiastic network member for as long as it is around.

A huge thanks to all those named here and the many more people that have supported me and the network in many ways who I have not named individually.

With gratitude

Caroline

Light into a Forest

Dr Jo Trelfa,Director, Iron Mill College, Exeter, UK

Dr Laura R Chapman,Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, Beaver College of Health Sciences, Appalachian State University, USA

Here, Jo Trelfa and Laura Chapman, two participants in the CPN workshop Contemplating the spaces in between: transforming meaning from experience through writing reflect on the experience of taking part – on the process of poetic transcription and their learning from it. If you have not read the original blog by Dr Mike Wride I recommend you do before reading on.

Thank you both authors for contributing and developing our understanding in this way.

Jo’s Reflection

Layers of Complexity

There are always layers of complexity when asked to share a ‘meaningful learning experience’.  The first is I, in this case, as learner, am in control: I know the experience, how it started and ended and what has happened since.  The second is that I report on that; which links to the third matter, that I do this (and know this in advance) for the context and particular audience, a performance, if you will.  Indeed, such matters have been the focus of my own research and publishing inquiries, specifically, how to reclaim and redefine the practices of reflective practice as authentic learning experiences.

To that end one of the themes in my work is to focus on reflection ‘in’ rather than ‘on’. 

So as a member of Mike’s workshop I didn’t follow the instructions per se; instead I focused on how I was feeling right then and there.  Thus, I didn’t have a start, end, or learning to recount, but I was curious to see if there was learning that would arise, learning that I didn’t know at the point of sharing. 

Here, and in my comments to Mike afterwards, I was interested not in the liminal space the activity offered but the liminoid

Entering the Liminoid

A brief explanation.  Turner writes of the experience of liminal activities as merely returning the participant to status quo, hence the activity being “a distorted mirror-image, mask, or cloak for structural activity” (Turner, 1974).  It is a description that chimes with Rancière’s (1987/1991: 7) critique of the approach to teaching and learning whereby educators “cunningly erect[ing] obstacle courses” that students have to learn how to, and must, navigate: they perform ‘learning’ according to the instructor’s (and institutional) concepts and requirements.  In contrast, liminoid experiences and activities go somewhere else, an “independent and critical source” of “creative activity” (Turner, 1974:65), or, for Rancière, a “forest with openings and clearings that the teacher themselves has not discovered” (1987/1991:7).

A Forest of Possibilities

This said, Mike’s guidance was important: it meant I was not blindly wandering about a forest of possibilities only to merely walk in to trees!  At the same time, it gave me the landscape to engage in a way that was meaningful to me, i.e. that I could engage in the way I chose without feeling to do so was unruly and troublesome, this being relevant to liminoid activities and experience within a (formal) educative setting.

I wrote:

I sit with the whole weight of my laptop on my neck and shoulders. It hurts.  The pain carries down my left arm; it’s as if there is a pressure band around the top of my arm, like my blood pressure is being measured all the time.  My left hand has pins and needles.  The pain in my neck is sharp, only just on the bearable side of unbearable.

I have been sitting here with the whole weight of my laptop on my neck and shoulders for a year.  No meaningful breaks or time off.  Staring in to a screen, into a screen divided into smaller screens, into documents, pages, websites, and tapping. 

On the plus, my tapping has speeded up – and I have completed my PhD – and I have got a new job – and I have completed very important projects and tasks – and I have supported my daughter to take part in her lectures – and in the end I brought a dog so at least I got to put the laptop down from time to time and go outside.  But still I sit here with the whole weight of my laptop on my neck and shoulders.

Jo’s initial written reflection

Following a process of reading and reflection on my words and engaging in poetic transcription Laura produced a response poem called ‘The Whole Weight’.

The Whole Weight

I sit with the whole wait: pain carries, pins and needles sharp

Only just on the bearable side of unbearable 

The whole weight for a year; no meaningful break

Staring, a screen divided

On the plus: speeded up, completed my PhD, new job, supported my daughter

But still, the whole weight.

A transcribed poem by Laura based on Jo’s reflection

Shining a torch

Laura’s created poem back to me was the ‘twist’, the difference between liminal and liminoid.  Firstly, to have my sharing received by Laura was striking.  The guidance not to add words meant that my poem sharing was deeply met and not changed, although, of course, Laura’s highlighting of what she saw as key within it alters it, requiring, as that does, her lens of what matters and not necessarily mine.  But crucially as she still worked with my words, the experience on receiving her poem-version back to me was one of a torch shining a beam into the forest, illuminating particular – and surprising – aspects: another ‘torch’ might illuminate other parts, but this would still act as light in to my own experience. 

To illustrate, in the poem-version back to me Laura includes ‘supported my daughter’, whereas I had been more taken up with the effect on me as employee.  Her ‘torch light’ in to that element of my experience prompted me to feel grateful for Covid home-working – more time with my daughter who had recently started university away from home!  So, rather than return me to what was my already-known work angst and exhaustion, the liminoid nature of the activity prompted me to experience the gifts of the year as well.  It was an unexpected torch light!

Laura’s Reflection

Illuminating Experience

Jo’s observation of my shining a torch onto her experience highlights the value of this exercise in an educational sense (to me, anyway). The “stumbling around” experience that Jo sought in the liminoid has such value. Indeed, personal meaning-making is a goal of contemplative pedagogy. As the observer/interpreter in this experience (and as an educator in the classroom), I had an opportunity to illuminate Jo’s experience, revealing a different, perhaps wider, bird’s-eye, third-person perspective. Such a perspective is difficult to perceive when one is in the middle of a forest, “stumbling around”. With both perspectives, Jo (or any learner) has an opportunity to see how the third-person outside view jives with her first-person inside experience. This opportunity is invaluable, especially when the meaning that a learner constructs needs to be conveyed/explained to another; the future clinicians I train must be able to do this. 

References

Rancière J. (trans. Ross, K.) (1987/1991) The ignorant schoolmaster: five lessons in intellectual emancipation. Stanford, USA: Stanford University Press

Turner, V. (1974). Liminal to liminoid, in play, flow, and ritual: An essay in comparative symbology. Rice Institute Pamphlet-Rice University Studies, 60(3).

Contemplating the spaces in between: transforming meaning from experience through writing

Contemplative Pedagogy Network Workshop Series, March 24 2021

By Dr Mike Wride, Transformative Pedagogies Lead, Centre for Transformative Learning, Uni of Limerick, Ireland

It was a great pleasure to facilitate the Contemplative Pedagogy Network workshop on March 24th.  The workshop featured a classroom activity that I have used in my work as an academic developer: poetic transcription. This is based on the work of Fiona Smart and colleagues (Smart, 2017; Smart & Loads, 2017).

There were four steps:

  1. Participants were asked to free-write about a meaningful learning experience. The meaningful learning experience is akin to a ‘critical incident’ or a ‘disorientating dilemma’ and could be ‘personal or professional’ (10 mins).
  2. Having written about it, the experiences were then shared orally in groups of 3 in breakout rooms (15 mins).
  3. A second break-out activity then took place in pairs, where the texts were shared via the chat, email or via Google docs (or on paper if face to face). Poetic transcription was then carried out (see below)  (20 mins).
  4. The group then came back to together to share their experience of the task and explore any insights gained. This may include reading some of the experiences and/or poems outloud – but there is no pressure to do so (15 mins).

What is poetic transcription?

The process of poetic transcription involves each person selecting resonant/emotive key words and phrases from their partner’s prose to create a poem.

There are a few rules for poetic transcription:  

  • words can be removed to create the poem, but words can’t be added
  • no rhyming is required
  • punctuation is encouraged for structure/emphasis
  • the sequence/chronology of the original writing should be maintained
  • a title should be provided for the poem.

Why use poetic transcription in teaching?

I have always found it a wonderfully emotive, creative and transformative approach. It’s often the case that participants aren’t aware of all the facets or implications of their experience and how it has impacted them. They may not have thought about it for a long time.

The challenge is to make such implicit experience and tacit knowledge explicit and visible, so that transformation can occur: “We know more than we can tell” as Michael Polanyi says (Polanyi, 1998). It can be hard to do this as an individual. The process of sharing is helpful. But, it is the step of producing the poem, which really provides a new perspective. The paring down of the words seems to focus the meaning and, as all good lovers of poetry know, it’s often what is not said and the spaces in between the words, which hold the meaning and allow it to be revealed in new ways.

Cultivating curiosity but being clear

Previously, I had carried out this approach only in face-to-face sessions (during workshops on creativity in teaching), so it was a very interesting exercise to see how I could adapt this to an online format. The challenge was to structure the session to be true to the approach and to enable the participants to engage meaningfully with the activity and with each other.  Ultimately, I wanted them to leave with new perspectives on their experience and new ideas about how they might apply it in their own practice.

In the pre-workshop advertising summary, I had talked about ‘writing’ in general, but I had not specifically highlighted that participants would be writing poems!  The way to true transformation is often through inhabiting and moving through a space of uncertainly and not knowing. Therefore, I preferred not to be explicit about how the process will unfold.  It’s not that there is a lack of clarity – I believe that structure and clear instructions are very important, but the point is that not everything needs to be known at the outset.  

It’s important to allow for curiosity to be encouraged while creating a supportive environment and safe place for shared exploration. In this workshop, the aspiration was to create an opportunity for the participants to be curious about each other and the stories that were being told and unfolding. The shared experience also helps everyone appreciate how the ‘twist’ of creating a poem allows new meaning to emerge from the narratives. It’s there that the transformative potential lies.

Feedback and next steps

From the feedback received, the participants acknowledged the value of the space to think and the depth of sharing of experiences through coming together as a community to experience the practice. The importance of narrative and the need to listen were also appreciated. The break-out room activities were greatly appreciated but could perhaps have been given even more time.

It would be lovely to hear from you about your experiences of putting into practice this approach to contemplative pedagogy. You can share your experiences through our Mobilize CPN community!

A future blog post will be from two of the participants about their experience of the workshop. It will focus on their reflections on the process of sharing and writing.

References

Polanyi, M. (1998) The tacit dimension, in: L. Prusak (Ed.) Knowledge in Organization (Boston, MA, Butterworth Heineman).

Smart, F. (2017). Poetic transcription with a twist: An approach to reflective practice through connection, collaboration and community. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 54(2), 152-161.

Smart, F., & Loads, D. (2017). Poetic transcription with a twist: supporting early career academics through liminal spaces. International Journal for academic development, 22(2), 134-143.

Launch of Contemplative Pedagogy Network Workshops

I am very excited to announce the launch of Contemplative Pedagogy Network (CPN) Workshops. The workshops are being organised by a generous team from the network – Mike Wride, Anne Vicary, Juliet Trail and Andrew Morgans. They will take place roughly four times a year. Each workshop will feature a tried and tested classroom activity that the facilitator has utilised within their teaching in higher education. They will be practical sessions providing participants with inspiration about how contemplative pedagogy can be integrated into teaching and learning. This is something that you have been asking for for sometime but I have never had the capacity to do. Thanks to this amazing team these regular learning and connecting events are now coming to fruition!

Places will be free of charge and numbers will be limited. As such we will be advertising on the blog and network email list first of all, to give priority to network members, before advertising the events more widely. Please come along and support these seminars and invite others who may be interested.

The events will not be recorded as this creates a more relaxed environment for everyone attending, however each facilitator will write a blog and provide links to key resources after the event so that no one will miss out.

To participate please register by clicking on the flyer below and you will be sent all the necessary details to join via Zoom. The flyer is also available for download if you wish to share it with anyone.

I am hugely excited by this development in our network activities. Thanks to Mike, Juliet, Anne and Andrew for moving this forward.

Coping with depression in academic life: creating space through contemplative practice

I have felt this blog developing in my mind for sometime and was finally inspired to get on with it after receiving an email on 4th February about it being ‘Time to Talk Day‘. I currently work as a Senior Lecturer and in this blog I explore how I cope with academic life when depressive symptoms arise and explain how contemplative practice has transformed my response to things when the colour drains out of life.

These are just personal reflections on what has helped me. I describe some symptoms that some may find upsetting. I am not suggesting that these steps will be appropriate for everyone to respond to acute mental illness nor should they replace seeking appropriate health care.

Waves with no ’cause’

I suffered from my first episode of severe depression when I was 19. It took several years, inpatient and out-patient treatment and antidepressants to begin to live independently again. Since then there have been numerous periods of depression some deeper and longer than others, each requiring different levels of intervention. I now consider myself to be well much of the time but I still experience waves of depressive symptoms at least once or twice a year.

The ways these symptoms manifest does shift but tearfulness, sleep disruption, no sense of self-worth, irritability, wanting to be alone (this is fun in lock down!) and poor concentration often feature. This excerpt from Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘It was not death’ captures my sense of living with depression:

It was not Death, for I stood up,
And all the Dead, lie down-
It was not Night, for all the Bells
Put out their Tongues, for Noon

As if my life were shaven,
And fitted to a frame,
And could not breathe without a key,
And ’twas like Midnight, some –

When everything that ticked-has stopped-
And Space stares-all around-
Or Grisly frosts-first Autumn morns,
Repeal the Beating Ground-

Excerpt from It Was Not Death, For I Stood Up by Emily Dickinson (Accessed at Poetry Foundation)

I used to try and understand why these symptoms arose at a particular time, keen to fix whatever the cause was. However, I have found this investigation to be futile as often no one thing can be pin pointed. I have therefore come to accept that every now and again these feelings are part of my experience – this acceptance alone has brought its own peace. I no longer hold myself responsible for ‘curing’ myself or making these symptoms go away. My role is to respond appropriately to what is arising, take care of myself as best I can and when necessary seek help from others.

Mindfulness – noticing untrustworthy thoughts…

One of the things I find most challenging when one of these waves manifests is the sudden shift in my confidence and sense of self-worth. It feels as though suddenly everyone else in the world is doing amazingly and everything I have ever done adds up to nothing. Within academia where there is pressure to perform and show that you are performing as an individual I think this can be particularly pernicious. My thoughts drag others into this too and without any reason I suddenly feel that others don’t want to work with me or have a low opinion of my work.

What my mindfulness practice has given me is the ability to stand back and really question these thoughts. Why was I working very happily with these supportive colleagues just a week or so ago? Do I really think they have the time or inclination to be judging my performance? I love my job and for the most part I am very happy in what I do. I know that I contribute, that I am valued and that I can teach. So there is an incongruence between what I think and feel about myself in these times and what I know to be the case. The difficulty of course is that the longer a period of depression goes on for the harder it can be keep hold of these threads.

…but being cautious with meditation

The application of mindfulness awareness to my thoughts is therefore an important tool in getting through these difficult periods but one area of practice that gets more difficult for me during these times is meditation. I usually meditate in the mornings but during these times, on my worst days, I can find myself crying before getting out of bed. Long periods of unguided meditation when I am in this place can be unpleasant and unsettling and poor preparation for the day ahead. I sometimes avoid meditation for a period of time but more often do shorter guided practices that feel manageable. I find it important to minimise demands on myself in all dimensions of my life although the extent to which this is possible does vary.

Self-compassion – making space for what is

This lack of self-worth and sense of colour draining from life is not just a cognitive process but an emotional one too. The experience of depression is emotionally painful in a way that is so hard to capture but never forgotten once experienced and cannot be far enough away for those of us in whom it recurs. The need for self-compassion in response is key particularly when working in a demanding environment such as academia.

Managing demands

The first way that I exercise self-compassion is prioritising tasks that feel manageable and not embarking on anything new or pushing myself in areas which feel difficult. I focus on logistical and administrative tasks that are quite straight forward and give a sense of satisfaction on completion. I delay embarking on projects that I don’t have the head space for such as writing which requires creativity and sustained attention. I have to be careful not to take on too much in an attempt to reinforce my faltering self-worth. Sometimes, however there are limited choices and responsibilities that must urgently be attended to.

I usually find that work helps me through these times as it provides routine and connection with others. I usually don’t share how I am feeling with colleagues because I like work to be a way of distancing myself from how I am feeling for part of the day. This is not always sustainable though. I also know that for many people work is a key stressor that contributes to poor mental health and I am open to the idea that a wave in the future may require time off work to recover from. Self-compassion means letting ourselves off the hook, acknowledging where we are, knowing that others have experienced similar situations and responding with kindness. How this manifests with regards to work will be different for each of us. The key is not pushing on and pushing on despite cues in the body and mind that all is not well.

Experiencing kindness through the body

I also find that getting into my body can be an important way of expressing self-compassion. I have found practices such as the bodyscan or yoga nidra can be accessible ways of engaging with my body. Walking is also helpful – the soft repetitive movements and escaping from the house. Overtime I have found that being sensitive to my embodied experience helps me relate to how I am with kindness and become more accepting and curious as life flows moment to moment. I also use the physiological responses of the body to create a sense of greater safety and wellbeing. This might be through engaging in gentle or fun exercise as well as hot showers, heavy blankets and comforting food and drinks. I find that all these can help reduce the painful vulnerability and sense of exposure that characterises these periods.

Contemplating kindness

Meditative practices such as the Metta Bhavana (Loving-kindness) have also proven helpful for getting in touch with kindness when this feels very distant from my experience. It has also helped me to release the tension and defensiveness that can build up when I am struggling. However, sometimes it can just be too much and overwhelming. Often I try things for a few minutes to just see how I respond with full permission to step away if it becomes too difficult. But even this is hard – I often catch myself striving to make myself ‘feel better’ and ‘get it right’ which easily becomes another source of self-flagellation and blame. Written reflections as well as art and creativity may also appeal as ways of allowing space for how we are feeling to come to the fore. This is important – how can we respond with compassion if we are not aware of, or deny, our suffering?

Distraction – passing the time and finding pleasure

Lastly, sometimes when I am feeling really low the question changes from ‘how do I look after myself’ to ‘how do I get through the next few hours’. Even when I can engage more constructively, time out and small pleasures are really important for riding the waves.

Depression is boring, I think

and I would do better to make

some soup and light up the cave.

Excerpt from The Fury of Rainstorms by Anne Sexton (Accessed at All Poetry)

I agree with Sexton that depression is boring and yet it can be all consuming at times. I sometimes feel as though I can’t trust my own mind and having things that distract me in gentle, undemanding ways feels so important. Even if feeling joy or contentment feels out of my reach at least I know that the next few hours are taken care of. TV is my go to. Contemplative practice should not feel like a punishment. Recognising those times when we choose distraction as a way of looking after ourselves is very different from a mindless life caught up in perpetual distraction.

And even if that is where we find ourselves, caught in the grasp of craving, resistance and pain our response is still the same – noticing, softening and kindness. I have tried fighting depression for many years both internally and externally. But found that fighting and denying it just digs a bigger hole. That is not to say we should not address things in our life that are causing us harm, to the extent that that is possible. Or reach out for help when we feel we need to. It is not about being passive in the face of suffering. What a contemplative approach has taught me is the need for awareness, kindness and patience and a responsiveness that makes space for my vulnerability without making me a martyr to it.

I hope this is helpful in some way.

Caroline

Finding stillness: resources for reflection

Following the high level of interest in our contemplative evening for HE Educators entitled ‘Finding stillness to take the next step’ on Wednesday 16th December, I have made the practices available to everyone here.

Many of you asked whether the event would be recorded. I decided not to record it but below I have provided guidance and audio recordings that will lead you through a series of meditative, creative and reflective practices similar to those used on the evening. I hope these help to create some quietness and space in which you can make sense of your experience and start to see the way ahead.

Please approach these practices with kindness for yourself and respect for your capacity and wellbeing. Reflection and meditation can bring up difficult emotions and whilst this can be helpful it is important to respect our limits. There is no need to pressure yourself to engage if it does not feel appropriate. If you do engage and find the practices too challenging or overwhelming stop them at any time and come back if and when it feels appropriate to do so. If you are experiencing acute anxiety or mental health issues or have experienced recent trauma it may be best to avoid these practices at this time or seek out an experienced meditation/mindfulness teacher to work with.

If you intend to do all the practices sequentially I would advise allowing an hour to allow for gaps in between. There is no need to do them altogether but I would advise taking sometime to settle yourself in a quiet and safe space before embarking on the reflective practices as this will help create the open and receptive awareness that really facilitates this work.

At the end of a complex and challenging year I wish you well and hope these are helpful in some way

Caroline

Becoming still

If you have been very busy or anxious I would advise you to start here. This is a simple mindfulness practice to settle the body and mind. This will support the reflective practices that follow.

Reflecting back

For this reflection you need a pen and piece of paper to hand. You will be guided through a meditative reflection of the year and then asked to draw something depicting the movement from where you were at the start of year, what has happened since and where you are now. It’s not about getting it ‘right’ or being ‘accurate’ just tune in to what has happened that has been important to you and consider where you are now. Not trying to change anything or ‘improve’, just noticing with an open heart and sense of kindness towards yourself.

Connecting with purpose and meaning to find the next step

In this meditative reflection I bring in different questions to help you identify what is important in your work, your sources of inspiration and the challenges you face. In the final stage you are asked to consider – what next? You are invited to allow the questions to sink into your awareness and see what arises in response to them. This exercise is not about thinking or finding a definite answer but experiencing the questions and allowing the inquiry to go deeper into ourselves to see what comes up. Have a note pad and pen handy so that once the practice has finished you can write down anything important that has come up.

Finding stillness to take the next step

A strange year

It has been a strange year and as it’s end approaches I am wondering what to make of it all. How to make sense of it and the impact COVID-19 has had on all our lives. We have each woven our own thread yet it has also been a collective experience. Having COVID in common seems to have created, in some contexts at least, more of a willingness to permit space for our shared vulnerability and valuing collective endeavour. However, I am not suggesting, in a naïve way, that we have all ‘been in this together’, had the same experience or that people have become more cohesive. This year has been notable for unveiling and sharpening social, political and economic divisions and entrenching views.

For me, working as an educator in higher education has been both anxiety provoking and exciting too. The move online has meant that many of my pedagogic preferences have had to be let go, enabling me to engage with the possibilities rather than getting stuck in how I wish things could be. I have been encouraged by the way that many educators are taking the time to really consider what it means to look after students and impressed by the creativity of teaching activities. This was central to our explorations at the contemplative pedagogy symposium at the end of the summer.

But I am also struck by the tension of providing sufficient support for students whilst looking after ourselves. I know I am not alone in feeling caught between student needs, institutional pressures, the responsibilities and commitments of my personal life and the need for rest and recreation. This is the year where we have literally been bringing our students in to our homes and vice versa. Discussing the role of the personal and public in teaching Palmer notes: ‘…teaching is always done at the dangerous intersection of personal and public life…a good teacher must stand where personal and public meet, dealing with the thundering flow of traffic at an intersection where “weaving a web of connectedness” feels more like crossing a freeway on foot’ (Palmer 2007) He is describing how, even in ‘normal’ circumstances we cannot teach without revealing something of ourselves, but this year has meant revealing something of our homes and families and as a result touched on our vulnerabilities too.

Beyond our individual experiences, COVID has had a significant impact on the higher education sector more broadly. The financial precariousness of the sector has been highlighted as income sources were curtailed and staff faced pay freezes, reductions in hours and in some cases redundancies. This raises important questions for all of us that can feel particularly challenging to engage in when we are each struggling to do our day jobs!

Making sense together…

Last week I realised that I wanted to create some time to reflect on this year. To consider what my experience has been, what I have learned, what I have enjoyed as well as what I have resisted and resented! Contemplative practice can help us put down the busyness of our lives and find stillness. This opens the door to exploring and reflecting on our experience, helping us to find meaning, make sense and start to feel our way ahead. But I realised that I didn’t want to do this on my own but with other educators working with contemplative practice. So, in short, you are invited to:

Finding stillness to take the next step

An evening of practice, reflection and community

Wednesday 16th December 19.00-20.30pm

Join me online (via Zoom) for an evening of shared meditation practice, creative reflection and community discussion to explore and make sense of our work as educators in higher education at this time. The practices will be designed to facilitate stillness and spaciousness to give us the perspective to see what we want to leave behind and identify the inspiration we wish to take forward. I hope that it will be an insightful and supportive evening that helps us to connect with our own experience as well as feeling part of a community. Please bring a pen and paper and whatever you might need to be comfortable meditating for up to 15 minutes.

Please note: if you are suffering with acute mental illness, anxiety, or have experienced recent trauma, it may not be the best time to try meditation practice for the first time. Do get in touch if you have questions or concerns.

To register for the event: members of the Contemplative Pedagogy Network will have received an email inviting them to register for this event. If you are not yet a member of the network but would like to attend or you did not receive the invitation please email me directly and I will send you the link.

Creating safe spaces online: reflections from the symposium

A huge thank you to everyone who supported and attended the Contemplative Pedagogy Symposium this year. It was certainly very different and in some ways less then ideal! But the connection was powerful, refreshing and restorative. That people could join us from all over the world resulted in greater diversity than we have had before at our face to face events.

We did not record any of the sessions because we wanted to create a safe and contained learning space. However, I still wanted to find time to share some of our learning with those of you who could not attend.

This year we had two students on the organising team – Lily-Rose Fitzmaurice and Lanaire Aderemi both students at the University of Warwick. This is not something we have had before but in planning this year we felt that not having students involved was incongruent with the approach of contemplative pedagogy which we try to embed. They generously ran one of the workshops on the first day of the conference and produced a recording of their session after the event so that I could share it with you.

Their session, entitled ‘Setting the table, sitting with selves’, was about creating safe and creative learning spaces online. The video is full of very useful stuff, including reflections about themselves, their teaching and learning. I would really recommend watching the whole thing.

However, I also know the pressure we are under so I thought I’d highlight some key parts.

Setting the table

I absolutely loved the ‘Setting the Table’ introductory exercise (from 02:27-04:00 in the video). Using the idea of sharing food it was a good way to get people to interact through an accessible task that draws everyone into the space. It worked brilliantly at the symposium.

Student voices on safe spaces

The next section of the workshop which stood out to me as particularly relevant to our teaching this year was the video that Lily-Rose compiled featuring students talking about what a safe space means to them entitled ‘Safe spaces in higher education online: student voices’. I’d say this is essential viewing. It made me reflect on the complexity of these issues and how safe online learning looks different for different students (from 13:55-19:50 in the video).

Since first publishing this blog the video of this has now been made available as a stand alone. If you wish to use this in your teaching or training you are welcome to do so provided it is appropriately attributed.

Creating haikus that capture safety

In the last section that I want to highlight Lanaire guides us through the use of a haiku writing task to explore our own sense of safety and share it with others. This would be useful for someone wanting to introduce a simple poetry task in their teaching. The guidance and rationale are excellent (24:38-26:18 in the video).

Moving forward

Since the symposium I have been in touch with many of you on the mailing list to ask for your help. People are coming forward with great ideas about how to develop the network and there is a feeling that there is a real need for this at this time. From the feedback I received following the contemplative discussions I hosted back in the spring as well as the symposium, I know that finding ways to meaningfully connect are important for people right now. I find that discussing things with other educators to be restorative, helping to develop my sense of professional identity and appreciate the contributions we all make.

To develop things further I need people who would be willing to support additional activities as I cannot do more than I already am. I have had some people step forward to help out and it would be great to have some more. Please email me (barrattc@essex.ac.uk) if you’d be interested in getting involved. If this is not you at the present time please know that simply reading the blog, making the occasional comment, attending events and the odd supportive tweet are incredibly helpful and appreciated too.

Over the next few months keep an eye out here for future events and ways to connect.

Thanks for reading and all the work you are doing

Caroline

Applying contemplative pedagogy: integrating contemplation into teaching and learning

I was recently sent links to a series of videos by Karolyn Kinane an Associate Director at the Contemplative Sciences Center, University of Virginia. I have not yet had chance to watch them all but I wanted to share them with you. Karolyn has kindly given her permission for me to use them in this blog.

The videos are incredibly practical and I know this is something that people are really looking for. Each video is just a bite size chunk so you can really focus on what is relevant to you.

I have provided a link to the first video but the others are easy to access from here. The later ones in the series highlight how contemplative approaches can support our development and exploration of ourselves as educators which is so important.

To give you a sense of Karolyn’s approach this is a quote from her blog:

I first work with faculty to explore those hidden values so that we may be intentional about what we are cultivating—what our classroom practices and habits (which include assignments and activities) are developing in students. The contemplative precedes the critical. We look at what is happening in our classes in a non-reactive way so we can be honest about what, why, and how we are teaching and how we may wish to change it.

Karolyn Kinane, Contemplative course Design beyond technique

You can see that she does not see contemplation as an end in itself but, as I have explored here in the past, as a doorway into critical perspectives.

I hope you enjoy these resources and find them helpful. Feel free to leave comments or questions below. If you take any of these ideas forward in your teaching it would be great to know how it goes and learn from your experience.

Lastly if you haven’t booked for the Contemplative Pedagogy Symposium 2020 please do so here

Many thanks to Karolyn for her generosity in sharing these resources.

Warm wishes, Caroline