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

Addressing racism in higher education: some suggestions from contemplative pedagogy

It has only been in the last few years that I have come see the need to engage in discussions about race and racism and understand the implications of my whiteness. I am thankful to colleagues, friends and writers, particularly people of colour, who have showed great patience in helping me, and others, finally acknowledge this.

It has particularly been people working with contemplative pedagogy and social mindfulness (see Mindfulness and Social Change Network) who have made me appreciate the necessity of exploring racism within my own experience. This quote from bell hooks (2003: 29) illustrates the need to move from intellectual exploration of race to an embodied, experiential approach:

‘a well-meaning liberal white female professor might write a useful book on the intersections of race and gender yet continue to allow racist biases to shape the manner in which she responds personally to women of color. . . She may have a “grandiose” sense of herself, that is, a confidence that she is anti-racist and not at all vigilant about making the connections that would transform her behavior and not just her thinking.’

(hooks 2003)

Educators have a crucial role to play in addressing racism. Education teaches us about our society both implicitly and explicitly. As we move through the education system we learn what we should value and the ideals to which we should aspire. To address racism all levels of education need to be mobilised. This is not just about educating students and educators about race but helping us all to explore racism in our lived experience, to appreciate the interplay of privilege and oppression of which we are part. Yet, simultaneously, individual exploration needs to be supported by understanding racism in educational institutions which typically uphold dominant ways of understanding and knowing. Exploring racism in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) Bhopal (2014) notes that:

The internal cultures of HEIs often present a picture of themselves to the world that highlights liberal sentiments, progressive values and a commitment to meritocracy. Almost instinctively we regard our ‘seats of learning’ as institutions that rise above the inequalities and injustices of society at large. However, this is clearly too rosy a picture.

(Bhopal 2014: 18)

I now go on to suggest some ways contemplative pedagogy may support anti-racism work in higher education. This is the first time I have written about this and I share it as a working through of my ideas rather than a definitive account. I’d welcome comments, questions and suggestions below.

Understanding our world view

McGee (2015) points out that the idea sometimes expressed by white people, that they do not ‘see colour’ actually impinges upon our ability to engage in much needed conversations about race and how it impacts our view of the world. It prevents us from seeing that whether we like it or not our experience in the world is influenced by race. Reflecting honestly on our views and actions and being open to hearing stories of the world that may not fit our view of it is a necessary starting point. I have become conscious that I have been privileged enough to grow up in a world that has felt quite hospitable most of the time, that seems to value me and reward me for my efforts. My inability to hear, really hear, stories to the contrary has been made painfully obvious to me since I started taking this work seriously.

So, recognising views and the lens through which we look at the world is fundamental in understanding and addressing racism. Although attempts to address this with unconscious bias training in many HEIs have been made, these tend to be tokenistic and superficial. Contemplative practice can help us recognise our views and create the mental space to appreciate the experience and views of others. Whilst contemplative practices are diverse they typically involve stopping, stillness and inner reflection on our embodied experience. They balance the tendency to over value the cognitive domain in education by making space for the complex emotional reality we inhabit which is crucial in anti-racism work.

Holding Discomfort

Along with exploring our views, contemplative pedagogy can also help with coping with the discomfort of discussing racism and facing up to the fear of making mistakes. Fusco summarises how fear of discomfort can undermine our intentions:

“The socialization I and many other affirmative action babies received to identify racism as the property only of ignorant, reactionary people, preferably from the past, functioned to deflect our attention from how whiteness operated in the present…’

Coco Fusco cited in hooks. b. 2003.

Contemplative practices can help to reduce the emotional reactivity and emotional suppression which may hinder the progress of this work. They can support individuals as well as groups in coming together to communicate meaningfully. The growing interest in social mindfulness emphasises the importance of inner change for outer change and the benefits of self-care activities even in the midst of the pursuit of social justice (see Open Democracy 2020).

Embracing different ways of knowing

The valuing of subjective experience as a way of knowing the world is an important aspect of contemplative pedagogy. Roth (2014: 98) described how the ‘critical first person’ perspective developed by contemplative practice encouraged deeper understanding of the significance and meaning of what was being studied compared to objective, ‘third person’ study alone. Contemplative pedagogy therefore embraces different ways of knowing that take into account our embodied, emotional nature.

When considering how to address racism in higher education this is important. For Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students to feel heard, seen and appreciated in a learning context there must be space for them. Ndlovu-Gatsheni (2020) refers to the importance of epistemic freedom in addressing racism in education:

‘A noncolonial way [of learning] underscores that all human beings were born into valid & legitimate knowledge systems & recognizes the various & diverse ways of knowing, which restores epistemic freedom & cognitive justice.’

(Ndlovu-Gatsheni 2020)

Contemplative pedagogy, in my experience in any case, has helped me to see the epistemic assumptions much of my teaching makes. It has helped me develop ways of teaching in which the student is centred and explores learning through their own experience. Ndlovu-Gatsheni (2020), in the interview referenced above, goes on to say that whilst the physical processes of colonisation might have unravelled the epistemic project is on going because colonisation ‘invades the mental universe of a people, destabilising them from what they used to know’. It is crucial to take this into account if we are to address racism in higher education.

What does this look like in practice?

These claims now leave an important question. How do we integrate contemplative pedagogy in teaching and learning? This is a huge question, these are only suggestions.

Magee (2015) has developed a range of practices she refers to as Mindfulness-Based ColorInsight Practices. These include using mindfulness practices, reflection and dialogue to explore race with students. In this video she explores mindfulness in relation to the responses to the murder of George Floyd:

I would also suggest looking at Beth Berila’s website on Anti-oppression pedagogy and particularly the examples on injustice and privilege outlined by Susal Stebbins Collins.

Ruth King, who has written and taught about mindfulness and race, also presents relevant ideas on her blog and in her book Mindful of Race.

The Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education also has some very useful ideas in their seminar series including:

Cultivating Hope in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous World with Dr Éliane Ubalijoro

Exploring Interdependence through the Lens of Blackness with Ruth King and Kamilah Majied

From my experience of contemplative pedagogy its key contribution is creating space in the learning environment, whether through short periods of silence, written reflection or mindfulness practices, during which students touch into their own experience.

It is important to remember that contemplative practices are not something we should be asking our students to do without taking the time to engage in them ourselves. As educators we need to ensure we have the emotional resources to engage in anti-racism work in constructive and compassionate ways. We need to be clear about our intentions and the values sustain us. Finding contemplative practices that are meaningful to us can help with this.

Care, co-production and participatory research

Before finishing there is one more thing to emphasise – the importance of care. I am very conscious that as a white woman talking about anti-racism work that I have not experienced serious trauma within the institution I am trying to change, nor am I worn down by the micro-aggressions my BME students and colleagues face daily. It is crucial to recognise the differential burden carried in the work of addressing racism.

As such, any engagement with contemplative pedagogy, particularly in addressing racism, needs to be done with great thought and care and follow up support where necessary. I am particularly conscious that I do not know what these exercises might bring up for BME students or colleagues. Bringing a compassionate, flexible approach that allows individuals to opt out and provide feedback is important.

Co-creating different practices with BME students and staff could be a valuable way of developing the use of contemplative practices in this context. Innovations should be the subject of participatory pedagogical research to inform the use of contemplative pedagogy in addressing racism in higher education.

There is so much more to write on this!

But I am out of space, so I will leave you with Prof. Magee (2015) who summarises the point of this blog very beautifully:

While they won’t end racism, mindfulness and other contemplative practices do support ways of being in the world that reflect less of the biases that each of us holds, whether we are deliverymen, students, teachers—or men and women with badges, authorized to shoot to kill. 

And that is truly good news.

(Magee 2015)

References

Bhopal, K. 2014. The experience of BME academics in higher education: aspirations in the face of inequality. Leadership Foundation for Higher Education https://eprints.soton.ac.uk/364309/1/__soton.ac.uk_ude_personalfiles_users_kb4_mydocuments_Leadership%2520foundation%2520paper_Bhopal%2520stimuls%2520paper%2520final.pdf

hooks, b. 2003. Teaching community: a pedagogy of hope. New York: Routledge

Magee, R. 2015. How mindfulness can defeat racial bias. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_mindfulness_can_defeat_racial_bias

Ndlovu-Gatsheni, S.J. 2020. Decolonization, decoloniality, and the future of African Studies: a conversation with Dr. Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni https://items.ssrc.org/from-our-programs/decolonization-decoloniality-and-the-future-of-african-studies-a-conversation-with-dr-sabelo-ndlovu-gatsheni/

Open Democracy. 2020. Can mindfulness help us in the midst of COVID-19 – and beyond? https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/transformation/can-mindfulness-help-us-midst-covid-19-and-beyond/

Roth, H. 2014. A pedagogy for the new field of contemplative studies. In Gunnlaugson, O., Sarath, E., Scott, C., Ba, H. Contemplative learning and inquiry across disciplines. State University of New York Press, Albany

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

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Coronavirus_COVID-19_virus.jpg; Felipe Esquivel Reed

Reflections on critical contemplative pedagogy – two perspectives

I was excited to realise that it wasn’t only me writing about critical contemplative pedagogy in the most recent issue of The Journal of Contemplative Inquiry. Michelle Chatman, who so generously contributed to the 2018 Contemplative Pedagogy Symposium and on whose singing I reflected in my own article, had also contributed a paper on this topic.

In this blog I have chosen to include the abstracts of our different and yet complementary papers, as well as the full text PDF documents if you wish to explore either paper further. With many thanks to The Journal of Contemplative Inquiry for allowing me to share the full text in this way.

Advancing Black Youth Justice and Healing through Contemplative Practices and African Spiritual Wisdom

Michelle C. Chatman, University of the District of Columbia

Enduring constructs of inequity seem to perpetually devalue Black youth, casting them as insignificant and disposable. Critical contemplative pedagogy can help us disrupt the damaging narratives and systems that impede youth thriving, while also awakening us to a deeper knowing of justice. In this reflective essay, I offer a reimagining of Black youth through the use of contemplative practices and West African cultural wisdom.

CHATMAN, Michelle C. Advancing Black Youth Justice and Healing through Contemplative Practices and African Spiritual Wisdom. The Journal of Contemplative Inquiry, [S.l.], v. 6, n. 1, Jan. 2020.

The Contemplative and Critical in Community

Caroline Barratt, University of Essex

In this paper, I reflect on my experience of organising and participating in the Contemplative Pedagogy Symposium in the UK in August 2018. The event brought together educators with an interest in contemplative pedagogy, living and working together as a learning community for four days. A sense of deep connection developed as we dared to explore social justice, discrimination, industrial action, the neoliberalisation of higher education, and how our work in the classroom engaged with or was affected by these issues. The feeling of community that emerged from being able to sit with what was beautiful and ugly, joyful and painful has flowered in the months since and generated the energy and commitment to sustain difficult and important work. The event clearly demonstrated to me how the contemplative can bring us into a closer relationship with the critical. Contemplative practice is about not putting our heads in the sand but developing the awareness and responsiveness capable of holding our own vulnerability whilst engaging creatively with that which threatens us. It is through working closely with other educators who are similarly committed, open, and kind that I have come to see how contemplative practice can develop the courage and patience we need to let down our defences and see the world differently.

BARRATT, Caroline. The Contemplative and Critical in Community. The Journal of Contemplative Inquiry, [S.l.], v. 6, n. 1, Jan. 2020.

Contemplating the future…

Looking back over this blog since its conception in 2014, a last minute pre-Christmas blog seems to have become something of a tradition. Having said that, even by my own standards, the 23rd is a little late so I expect many of you will come to this in January!

Since the symposium I have felt a little lost about what to write here. The energy of the symposium was amazing but fizzled out quickly as other commitments took me away from thinking about contemplative pedagogy. In addition, a training course for PhD students that I developed based on mindfulness and contemplative pedagogy did not take off – only one student signed up and it was therefore cancelled. This has been the first time since starting this work that I have not felt a natural sense of momentum or forward movement.

However, listening to Yuval Harari talk about education in his book 21 Lessons I was reminded of the value of contemplation, of being trained in matters of attention and knowing our mind. When discussing the value of attention he states ‘when politics or science look too complicated it is tempting to switch to some funny cat videos, celebrity gossip or porn’. He goes on to describe how, as machine learning and biotechnology improve we are likely to become easier to manipulate. Marketing, whether from a company or our government, will become more effective and knowing our hearts and minds progressively more difficult.

The value of contemplative pedagogy with regards to the issues Harari raises is that it emphasises teaching students about attention, the nature of their minds and includes practices which enable students to see their minds at work. Seeing more clearly the working of the mind may support students to proactively mobilise their attention, helping to counteract manipulation. This may support their learning and academic performance but crucially also support the development of critical thought. Rather than just being critical of thoughts and views for their content, the mind itself, the arising of thoughts and the development of views are observed critically. Where do thoughts come from? What emotions or body sensations arise when I have that thought? How do I react in response to it?

Ergas (2015: 210) emphasises that the value of a contemplative turn in education is its potential to create a meta-pedagogical shift that reorientates education from an almost exclusive focus on teaching about the world ‘out there’ to include and value what is ‘in-here’ (our subjective, embodied experience):

When we start examining the moment to moment experience of an actual student and the ways in which his or her own mind deploys attention, the third-person perspective from which we tend to consider “education” begins to feel quite naïve. Dwelling in the latter perspective suggests that society can go about its business and attempt to educate, as if the students’ resource of attention is completely in its hands, and as if the student’s mind does not have its own personal agenda

Ergas (2015: 17) points out that this is not just about giving students tools to help them perform better but helping them to realise that ‘meaning can never exist elsewhere but only in the place where attention rests – in the moment’. Whether this is on the page they are reading, the advert that has just popped up on their laptop or the ‘ping’ signifying that someone has ‘liked’ their tweet. This also applies to educators too of course: what might attending ‘in-here’ reveal to us? and how might that impact what and how we teach?

Where do we go from here?

I think there are three key questions with which we should be primarily occupied in practising and researching contemplative pedagogy:

  1. How can we provide students and educators with opportunities to attend ‘in-here’ as well as learn about ‘out-there’?
  2. What are the risks and benefits of doing this?
  3. How might contemplative pedagogy prepare students and educators for the challenges we face in the 21st Century?

These are deliberately very broad. Fortunately, there is excellent work already being done – I don’t want to suggest that this isn’t the case but far more is needed.

In the past I have written about the need to consider contemplative pedagogy in conjunction with other pedagogical theories and the broader landscape of pedagogy research (critical pedagogy in particular). The more I think about it the more important it is. Listening to Harari has highlighted the need for research on contemplative pedagogy and the skills that we will need as a society in the future. This is partially being addressed in social mindfulness research but this is usually outside of formal education settings. At all levels of education this might include thinking about what are sometimes referred to “21st Century Skills” which include the 4Cs of critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity (for brief intro see Larson and Miller 2011). I am also interested in how a contemplative aspect might work with Bruner’s 5E Lenses (engagement, exploration, explanation, elaboration, evaluation) and how this might manifest in different disciplines (see Kivunja 2015).

It may be that is perfectly obvious to you all! However, as someone who feels relatively new to pedagogical theory I am only just starting to realise that I have understood contemplative pedagogy in quite an isolated way. Moving thinking and practice forward needs to be done in relationship to established knowledge and thinking, informed by the needs of our society at this point in history.

I am sure these not quite congruent observations raise more questions than they answer, so do let me have your thoughts and comments.

Wishing you a joyful and peaceful festive season and happy new year.

Caroline

What’s love got to do with it?

The moment we choose to love we begin to move against domination, against oppression. The moment we choose to love we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others.

hooks (1994: 298)

When I first read Zajonc’s ideas about an ‘epistemology of love’ in 2014 (Zajonc 2006), I decided that this talk of love wasn’t for me. I could stand up and talk to students and educators about the value of contemplation but talk about love? No way.

Yet now, in 2019, love suddenly feels important and relevant. I have recently started reading bell hook’s work for the first time. I have been touched by her willingness to talk about love. She liberates love from the suffocating shackles of the romantic ideal and celebrates love as a liberating force in a way that makes my heart tremble. She also talks about love not just being a feeling but an action too. The idea that we can simply ‘love everyone’ may seem trite, yet the desire to act lovingly is accessible and grounded: ‘openly and honestly express[ing] care, affection, responsibility, respect, commitment and trust’ (hooks 200: 14).

The current political difficulties facing the UK have also brought this to the forefront of my mind. When I was pondering what banner to make to attend the anti-prorogation protest in London last Saturday I decided I just wanted to take a love heart on a stick. That for me encapsulated why I was going and yet I did not have the confidence to make that banner, fearing ridicule. Didn’t I have anything sensible to say? Didn’t I want to take sides? To ridicule Johnson?

Whilst there, although I had attended because I had disagreed with the action taken by the government, I came to the conclusion that my overwhelming motivation was love, not sentimental love, but an embodied sense of care, affection, responsibility, respect, commitment and trust that hooks so pertinently describes. My fear about what was being lost through the government’s action was not just about me (although that was certainly part of it) but part of something much bigger – our collective freedom.

So what has this got to do with contemplative pedagogy? My contemplative and spiritual practice has been fundamental in making me wake up to love and the responsibility that this entails. Mindfulness practice in particular (both on and off the cushion) has helped me see how fear and ignorance contain and restrict me as I mould myself to accommodate and ameliorate dominant world views, ensuring that I am OK often at the expense of seeing the realities of others. Embodied practice such as yoga has also facilitated access to my experience of heart and body where injustice cannot as easily be explained away as it can in my mind. It is felt and once felt, at least in my experience, it cannot be easily dismissed.

In recent months I have come to see that contemplative practice, critical pedagogy and love are intertwined. By engaging with direct experience and seeing more clearly what drives my actions and decision making, my commitment to creating social change grows. I can see, and more importantly feel, how interconnected we are all are. The friendships I have developed with others who are wiling to be honest about the terrifying vulnerability of what it means to be human, have helped to open my heart and acknowledge how recognition of this fear can reveal love. Bristow (2019) describes how mindfulness practice can help to shift thinking from ‘me’ to ‘we’ and support the development of equanimity and insight capable of holding the complexity of the difficulties we face. This is not to say that love instantly makes everything OK – this is not naive hocus pocus, but it does mean I can start to see the world differently and want to take action as a result.

The relevance for educators is that if we are to start drawing critical and contemplative pedagogies together, establishing deeper connections between the personal, internal world and the social, external world we also need to be prepared to talk about love. Friere in his development of critical pedagogy did not shy away from love, identifying it as both the means and ends of a critical education. He noted that education occurred “when [the teacher] stops making pious, sentimental, and individualistic gestures and risks an act of love.” (1970: 34), seeing his work as contributing to the creation of a world ”in which it will be easier to love” (1970: 24). However he was not explicit about how he defined love and the centrality of love in his work is often over looked (Schoder 2010).

My experience suggests that if we start to speak of love in education we also need to acknowledge fear too. Seeing ourselves and the world differently can be fearful. It requires courage and yet it is through touching our own vulnerability and seeing that of others that love can emerge and become a force capable of transformation, that can help us move towards freedom.

‘As our cultural awareness of the ways we are seduced away from love, away from the knowledge that love heals gains recognition, our anguish intensifies. But so does our yearning. The space of our lack is also the space of possibility’

hooks 2000: 221

References

Bristow, J. 2019. Time for new thinking about mindfulness and social change https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/transformation/time-new-thinking-about-mindfulness-and-social-change/

hooks, b. 2000. All about love: new visions. New York: Harper Perenial

hooks, b. 1994. Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations. New York: Routledge

Freire, P. 2000. Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum

Schoder, E. 2010. Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of love. https://rucore.libraries.rutgers.edu/rutgers-lib/27183/

Zajonc, A. 2006. Love and knowledge: recovering the heart of teaching through contemplation. Teachers College Record, 108, 1742–1759.