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Bringing Spiritual Exploration into the Classroom
Spirituality and Higher Education
A National Symposium
November 18-19, 2005
Patricia Carey, University Chancellor and Associate Dean, Steinhardt School of Education, New York University
Philip Dunston, Executive Director, Accelerated Interdisciplinary Degree Program, Clark Atlanta University
Virginia Kaiser, Associate Professor and Coordinator of the Social Work Program, Marymount College of Fordham University
Katherine Oldmixon, Director of the Writing Program, Huston-Tillotson University
This is a guided mindfulness practice for the classroom, an exercise to bring mind and body together in the present moment. It supports training the wandering mind to come back to — here.
BEGIN: Ring a small meditation bell once.
“Please stay sitting or stand if you would like.
Soften the eyes or close them.
Bring awareness to the top of the head.
As I guide our awareness down the body, let tension relax.
Over the forehead and down the face.
Around the jaw and mouth and lips.
Soften the neck, shoulders, armpits.
Breathe and relax around the heart and lower ribs.
Drop though the abdomen, relaxing and releasing.
Breathe and relax the pelvis, genitals, upper thighs.
Continue the awareness dropping through the knees.
Breathe down the calves to the ankles.
Come to the feet, soften the bottom of the feet.
Feel earth beneath gently supporting each of us.
If you are standing sit now or remain standing.
Open the eyes. Listen to the sounds around us.
When thoughts arise, come back to this room.
Now, begin to think about things.
Mingle the breath with the thoughts.
Bring someone to mind that you are fond of…person or animal….living or passed on.
Imagine them surrounded by soft golden light.
Breath easily and stay gentle.
Let the light slowly fade.
END: Ring the meditation bell once.
First, invite students to sit and receive this experience quietly for a moment. Then, address this exercise as a mode of inquiry, an experiential process that engages different levels of our perceptions. It is embodied – uses senses of both the body and mind consciousness. Sometimes this approach feels uncomfortable the first time.
Create small groups of three to four students and ask them to talk about the exercise among themselves for five to seven minutes.
Conclude with some general discussion, possibly how this contemplative mode of inquiry might integrate into other parts of their lives.
Contemplative practices are methods to cultivate qualities of mind relevant to all areas of the curriculum. Forms of contemplative exercises include mindfulness meditation, reflective reading (Lectio Divina), compassion practices and many others. Over the millennia, diverse religious traditions have discovered that these practices are powerful methods to develop the qualities of mind that are essential for spiritual progress and insight: focused active attention, a mind that is open and receptive, a capacity for awe, appreciation of mystery, a feeling of kinship with others, listening skills, the volitional capacity to set aside self and engage fully in the task at hand, a perspective that is simultaneously vast and precise, and a respect for all creation.
The treasure trove of contemplative methods tested and honed by the religious traditions can be brought into all educational pursuits. Rather than diminish their value for spiritual development, the use of contemplative practices in academic inquiry complements and enhances their impact on spiritual inquiry. In a panel this morning, Prof. Nina Torres-Vidal made this point beautifully when she pointed to Simone Weil’s essay “The Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God.” Weil makes the point that cultivating the muscle of attention in academic pursuits is complementary to the value of attentiveness in one’s relation to the sacred.
In the past 10 years, there has been a fertile generosity in the academy to the possibility that contemplative practices offer. Having seen the demonstrated therapeutic impact that meditation has in the fields of medicine, the academic world is realizing its even greater potential to enhance learning via cultivating active attention, openness and motivation. This is not to mention the highly prized and seemingly mysterious goals of creativity and compassion that are often undermined by academic anxiety.
The twin effects of contemplative methods are in enhancing both academic learning and appreciative engagement with the sacred. These two find common ground in the open inclusive awareness without loss of precision that is the fruition of contemplative practices. It is with the open active contemplative mind that spirituality is discovered within one’s own experience. This discovered spirituality results in a highly motivated inquiry that students are hungry for. The Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) led by Alexander and Helen Astin at UCLA found this in the results of their nationwide survey:
Today’s college students show a very high level of interest and involvement in spirituality and religion, are actively engaged in a spiritual quest, and have high expectations for the role their universities will play in their spiritual and emotional development. (www.spirituality.ucla.edu)
You might say that college students are hungry for wholeness and the HERI research indicates that they long to integrate spirituality into their work in college. As Dr. Calvin Butts said in his keynote address, young people need a trained mind (education) and an attuned heart (spirituality). Contemplative methods integrate education and spirituality or mind resulting in the capacity to be fully present or whole.
In the context of contemplative inquiry, spirituality is discovered and the individual can explore whatever language is meaningful to describe and understand, whether from a religious tradition, the arts, or the language of nature among others. This makes it possible to bring spirituality into any type of classroom whether the institution is secular or religiously affiliated. Moments of discovered spirituality are common in academic settings where contemplative methods are established modes of inquiry.
This discovered or natural spirituality pervades the curriculum and culture of Naropa University, a multi-faith community with roots in Buddhism and Western liberal education. At Naropa contemplative approaches are central to inquiry, for example, in the arts, social sciences, writing, in professional training in counseling, as well as in the administrative work and leadership of the university.
Jennifer Lyke in this panel talked about James Fowler’s theory and research in the area of faith or spiritual development. We can use his stages as a lens through with which to view the developmental value of contemplative pedagogy. The modal levels for college students are Stage 3 (Synthetic-Conventional Faith), an immersion phase when faith provides a context for identity, and Stage 4 (Individuative-Reflective Faith), which is precipitated by doubt and questioning. Stage 5, on the other hand, is characterized by Fowler as “willingness to let reality speak its word.” (Fowler, 1981, The Stages of Faith, p. 185) Contemplative methods cultivate this willingness in both mundane academic inquiry as well as spiritual inquiry. In my experience in Naropa classrooms, I have been impressed many times by this willingness. In fact, if I had to use one word to describe the contemplative culture that pervades Naropa, I would call it willingness – found not only in classrooms but department meetings and university gatherings of all kinds.
An Example from a Course in Social Psychology
There is a “contemplative lab” component in my social psychology course where students are asked to investigate a concept from the course using a method of looking into their experience and simply noticing what arises. In the section on attributions and stereotypes, students do a walking exercise where they walk for 15-30 minutes in a fairly crowded public setting like a mall or airport and repeat this three times. While walking, they are asked to notice the very first arising of thoughts about people they pass, the first glimmer of a thought before it even forms into coherence. In order to do this, the student must have an established contemplative habit of noticing so he or she can catch the arising of glimmers of a thought before dismissing it.
In doing this exercise, students notice that they have thoughts they do not even agree with. This leads to an interesting discussion about the common cultural “soup we’re all swimming in,” an insight that paves the way for a more open and non-defensive discussion of prejudice and racism. But before we get to that in the syllabus, the second half of this contemplative lab exercise is to do the same walk a few times and instead of the simple noticing, students are asked to silently wish each passerby happiness, ease or a feeling of being at home or at peace. This functions both an antidote to the awkward feelings that can arise by the noticing practice and also as a way of acknowledging that in order to maintain contemplative inquiry it is important to simultaneously cultivate positive affect or positive attitudes towards ourselves and others.
This presentation describes ways in which class discussion may facilitate students’ spiritual development in a course on “States of Consciousness” at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. The course is offered as a capstone course in General Studies under the category of General Integration and Synthesis, a classification reserved for courses that are inherently interdisciplinary.
This particular course focuses on the biological, psychological, religious/spiritual/philosophical perspectives on various states of consciousness, including dreams, hypnosis, meditation, psychic states, drug induced states, mystical experiences, and so on.
Multiple opportunities for facilitating students’ spiritual growth present themselves during this course, especially because spiritual development is inseparable from other developmental processes. Spiritual growth can undoubtedly be facilitated by development on other dimensions, such as intellectual or emotional experience. Development in multiple domains is also encouraged by enhancing self-reflection and awareness, recognizing the relativity of experience, and confronting other perspectives. The course is designed to offer many opportunities for each of these experiences.
James Fowler’s (1981) stages of faith are relevant to these students’ experiences. Fowler’s stages describe a progression of spiritual development in six phases from the “intuitive-projective” faith of childhood to “universalizing” faith, the ultimate stage in which a person has transcended the more common struggles associated with spirituality.
The stages of Fowler’s model most relevant to students in “States of Consciousness” are stages three and four. These phases are common among adolescents and young adults, and it is for students transitioning between these stages in particular that the format and content of this class has the greatest potential influence. Fowler’s stage three is called Synthetic/Conventional. It typically begins in adolescence and characterized by conformity. In this stage, students’ faith is generally tuned to the expectations and judgments of others. Stage four is called Individuative/Reflective. In this stage, students begin to reflect critically on their previous system of belief and relocate authority for their faith from external sources to within themselves.
“States of Consciousness” is a course in which lectures introduce intellectual problems associated with various states and the empirical evidence related to these problems. For example, a problem encountered early on is the contradiction between materialist and dualist philosophies of consciousness. There is a long history of scientific and philosophical debate about the basic question of where consciousness originates. Some scientists and philosophers believe in materialism, the idea that everything, including awareness, is a byproduct of the physical world. Others believe in dualism, or the idea that there is another plane of reality apart from the physical world, that produces consciousness. Class discussions of such problems then encourage personal expression and debate among peers. In some cases, in class writing assignments facilitate students’ thinking about their opinions before or after these discussions.
Discussion questions that may be particularly conducive to facilitating students’ spiritual development may include:
Is there a soul separate from the body?
What is God, and how do you know?
Can psychedelic drugs be spiritually useful?
Is there one self, many selves, or no self?
What is the meaning of life?
Will computers ever have consciousness?Do animals have consciousness?
Are mystical experiences meaningful or functions of physiological effects on the brain?
These questions create facilitative conditions for students’ spiritual development by encouraging students to balance passion and rationality in their arguments, consider the unbiased presentation of multiple viewpoints provided in lectures and readings, and tolerate and respect the perspectives of others. Pedagogically, my job as their professor entails facilitating discussions with both support and challenge for students’ opinions, incorporating active and experiential learning opportunities, and modeling respectful tolerance of diversity.
Assessment in this course is based on essay exams, a research paper and an experiential project. The project is a chance for students to design an experience for themselves that will enhance their understanding of a particular state. For example, sometimes students schedule appointments at a nearby floatation tank and write about their experience with sensory deprivation. Others visit hypnotists, practice yoga, or record their dreams as a way to increase their awareness of their own experiences. In combination with the class discussions, this course is one avenue for students to explore their spirituality, consciously or unconsciously, within the context of an academic setting.
Fowler, J.W. (1981). Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. New York: Harper & Row.