Contemplative Practices in Higher Education: The Spaces In Between

April 12, 2019 / By: Dr. Erika Scheurer | Director, Writing Across the Curriculum, Associate Professor of English

Dr. Erika Scheurer, Director of Writing Across the Curriculum

Anti-woo-woo professor meditates with class

Over five years ago, I participated in a Faculty Development summer workshop on mindfulness and contemplation in teaching. I did it on a whim, really; I am not your typical signer-upper for that type of workshop: always busy, definitely not a meditator, and absolutely anti-woo-woo [insert waving hands and rolling eyes].

But my week with facilitators Vanessa Cornett-Murtada and Bill Brendel as well as colleagues from all across campus turned around my skepticism about mindfulness. I discovered I could happily sit and do breathing meditation for a 45-minute stretch (this came as a great surprise). I also discovered that I lived largely in the past and the future and very little in the present moment, which is where life actually happens. And I discovered a number of ways to bring mindfulness to my teaching and my life.

At the end of the workshop, we were invited to commit to one mindfulness practice we would bring to our teaching. Being a minimalist, I chose the simplest: I would do one minute of meditation with my students at the start of each class for all my courses.

I described the one-minute mindfulness meditation in a 2016  Synergia column on “Low Effort High Impact” pedagogical practices. As I said there, my students appreciated the way our mindful minute helped them become calm and focused; in fact, they regularly asked for additional meditation time. I was happy to comply since it helped me to become calm and focused too!

A week at Smith College transforms my teaching (again)

Last summer, I participated in the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society’s Summer Session on Contemplative Learning at Smith College

There, I had the privilege of working with faculty across the disciplines from all over the nation and world – all committed to contemplative pedagogy in the context of higher education. I learned that contemplative pedagogy can incorporate a great variety of practices in addition to the straight-up meditation I had been practicing:

  • Drawing
  • Movement and play
  • Eating
  • Writing
  • Reading (lectio divina)
  • Connecting to the natural world
  • Looking (“beholding”)
  • Listening (to sounds, music, one another)

What made all these activities contemplative? Slowing them down. Paying attention. Being aware that I was doing whatever I was doing as I was doing it. It’s really that simple.

And it’s really that hard. Paying attention in the present moment is really, really hard. My small group leader, an economist, was extremely patient with me.

As a result of my experience with CMind, this year I’ve changed things up. Instead of beginning each class with a mindful minute and gradually increasing the time when students wish, I regularly introduce new contemplative practices which we try for a week, interspersing those weeks with ones where we do guided meditation.

Because I teach English, we began with lectio divina: the slow repetitive reading aloud of a poem, each student taking a line, pausing to circle and share words that stood out, then more reading aloud.  During other weeks we practiced various versions of mindful breathing: taking just one conscious breath with a long exhale; the mindful minute, a gratitude meditation, longer stretches of guided conscious breathing. This week I introduced mindful eating: a tangerine and then (of course) chocolate. When the snow clears: mindful walking!

The student response, as in the past, has been overwhelmingly positive:

  •  “I always look forward to it and it is my favorite part of class!”
  • “I really love the meditations because it gets me focused for class and to be in the present moment.”
  •  “The start of class rituals have become very important to me. Meditating before class has helped me calm down on stressful days and live in the present moment.”
  •  “My mind becomes more clear, as if I hit a reset button.”
  •  “[Contemplative practices] give me a chance to leave my other problems at the door and to wholly focus on what we are learning.”
  • “Some days they can be a bit uncomfortable just because it is a new practice and is something I’ve never done in a class but ultimately I like them as they help me to re-center myself and set my mind on the class.”

And then, there is this one:

  • “I believe it is a waste of time.”

As with anything else you try in class that’s a little risky, there will be the objectors. In five years of including meditation—and now, broader contemplative practices—in my courses, I can count three students who did not see the value. (As a wise person pointed out to me, those are probably the ones who needed it the most.)

Looking forward: contemplative practice as a way to change St. Thomas

I attended the CMind Summer Session hoping to vary and deepen my repertoire of contemplative pedagogies and I did. The following October I was able to take it even further: St. Thomas senior Duncan Anderson and I traveled to the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education’s annual conference at my alma mater, UMass-Amherst, to present on One University – One Breath, a pilot sponsored by the Wellness Center and the Project for Mindfulness and Contemplation. That experience cemented a realization that had been growing in me since the summer session:

Contemplative practices invite faculty and students to teach and learn from a more grounded, focused, and present place. They can transform our classrooms in profound ways. But that’s not all. They can also transform institutions, leading to deep change in climate and culture.

At the ACMHE conference, the overarching focus was on the use of contemplative practices to facilitate social justice and anti-racism work on college campuses. There is increasing scientific evidence that mindfulness practice reduces racist dispositions and behaviors, decreases burnout in those who work for justice, and helps those who experience racism to cope.

Given St. Thomas’ history and the recent new priorities of the university I think we are poised to make contemplative practices a key part of our larger agenda for change.

In closing, consider the opening stanza of Judy Brown’s “Fire”:

What makes a fire burn

is space between the logs,

a breathing space.

Too much of a good thing,

too many logs

packed in too tight

can douse the flames

almost as surely

as a pail of water would.

So building fires

requires attention

to the spaces in between,

as much as to the wood.

As we move forward—both within and beyond our classroom walls—we would do well to pay attention not only to the wood we use for building (the contents of our courses, programs and initiatives), but also to the quality of our attention and presence: “the spaces in between.”


April 18 Workshop: Breathing Across the Curriculum: Integrating Contemplative Practices to Support Student Writing

In this workshop, Dr. Erika Scheurer will introduce you to simple, yet powerful, techniques you easily can incorporate into your classes right away. Register to attend.

April 24 Webinar: Faith in a Seed: Strategies for Nurturing and Embedding Contemplative Approaches on our Campuses

Register to attend a free webinar sponsored by the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education on ways to cultivate Contemplative Approaches (CA) in higher education