Even though I encountered wisdom literature when specializing in Hinduism during my Religious Studies doctoral program, through reading the works of Christian female mystics and the liberation theologies of feminist spiritual guides, it took a book I never encountered in my academic studies to give me a spiritual foundation that feels complete after my departure from Christianity: Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. It led me to the place where I am now, practicing mindfulness, being aware of the ego, and attempting to live in the present. Now I can return to wisdom literature with a lens that helps it make sense. Although I did not know it when I began utilizing these ideas in the classroom, there is an entire pedagogy based on them.
Contemplative education is based on the observation that the world is in need of healing and the majority of people have not encountered helpful ways to deal with their suffering. Why not use the classroom for healing and to create healers? Contemplative education has five goals or elements: 1. deep, or critical, thinking, 2. constructive communication, 3. awareness of the global impact of our behaviors, 4. personal development/well-being, and 5. a non-sectarian admiration for and inclusion of wisdom literature and traditions. This last element is what really distinguishes this pedagogy from others. And I see how it shares a great deal with feminist practices as well, especially as feminist pedagogy honors experiential knowledge, self-reflection, and activism.
I teach an undergraduate composition class, so I have a lot of space to create a theme, reading list, and discussion questions that speak to well-being and compassion. The books I select very short readings from (in accordance with the fair use clause) to supplement their textbook readings (I choose the ones on the environment) include the following:
The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle
A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle
Most Intimate, Roshi Enkyo Pat O’Hara
Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, Nhat Thich Hanh
The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz
The Five Levels of Attachment, Miguel Ruiz, Jr.
Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Karen Armstrong
Armstrong, in Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, lists “knowledge” as the 10th step to cultivating compassion. She explains that it is the “strident dogmatism that dismisses the views of others [as] inappropriate” (118) that is rooted in ignorance.
Compassion helps us enter into knowledge. Sometimes students enter the university classroom with unyielding ideologies and/or walls of defensiveness protecting the self. They might expect the classroom to be a struggle, with the professor using grades to reward and punish. In such an environment, it is difficult to learn. They might not be used to communication which is life-giving and heals, which is steeped in kindness. In our world, it is easy for many people to move throughout their day and not encounter kindness. Part of this may be that many people/of us are too consumed with our own thoughts to be kind and extend these gestures. I have to remind myself, when I am particularly lost or busy, to “see” others. So on the other end of my reading list and theme (which is usually “Change the World”), is me who tries to see them. I think it has taken me many years of teaching to get here, but I mostly just try to not take things personally. And while I set satisfying goals for my students, guiding them directly and clearly towards them, I am ultimately non-attached to the outcome. I still care very much, but my care is sans being demanding.
What I want for students is to be able to see the humanity of the authors behind the works we read and to not enter into literature defensively (especially when that literature might be about something unfamiliar or controversial), shutting down at the first inclination of difference and setting the whole of it up as something to attack as if the self were in jeopardy. These last two semesters I have taught composition online, so I am particularly apt to remind myself of the aggressive communication that happens via the internet both outside and inside the classroom. I want the students, as most professors do, to be able to recognize and create nuance in a conversation, to speak fairly about subjects, and to honor context, but to also converse with each other and myself in kind ways. One way to get them to that point is to first deal with their anger, fear, and self-hate. Then can we begin to listen.
Contemplative education takes a holistic approach to learning, focusing on, in addition to students’ acquiring of knowledge and skills, their general well-being. And the response has been really heart-warming, in my experience. At the end of one semester a year or two ago, I had one student come up to me almost in tears telling me that she only wished she would have encountered the reading on mindfulness and anger earlier in life. I understood exactly what she meant. I told her I wished I would have encountered it earlier as well.
Our earth, all the beings on it, are in desperate need of healing. Few of us learned how to develop healing practices at an early age, to find community, or be aware of our impact on the earth and each other. As adults, we live in a culture driven mainly by profit. What is advertised and promoted is not often what tends to our emotional needs and protects our bodies best. The damage we see to the earth to the point we fear there is no going back reveals how much we need to stop, to slow things down, and to rouse ourselves from this insanity. We seek a great peace we cannot purchase. Yet we live in a world where purchases are the most common relational transaction.
But wonderfully, as Pema Chödrön has said, we each have a natural warmth, natural openness, and natural intelligence within us. Just as we see the brilliant construction of sky, the movement of stars, and the cyclical sacrifice and regeneration of vegetation, we too share those energies, are made up of that instinctually creative material. We, humanity, as one aspect of living matter, have such glorious and kind attributes. I am grateful that the classroom is one of many spaces where this can be discovered and revealed and practiced.
I would love to know what readings you assign in class that have impacted students on a personal level or how you attend holistically to students’ well-being in the classroom or wherever you guide others.
LaChelle Schilling, Ph.D., graduated in 2014 from the Women and Religion program at Claremont Graduate University. She teaches composition from a contemplative pedagogical approach at Oklahoma State University. Currently, she is working on a book project titled Minimalism, Mindfulness, and the Middle Way, incorporating guidance from sacred wisdom literatures. She is also working on certification as a yoga instructor.