Contemplative practices in higher education: the hard task of not doing

Robert Chmielewski

The hard task of not doing

You are reading a blog post that is shorter than usual.  Considering its subject, I believe that your valuable five minutes can be spent on something more than just reading.  The post comes with an activity, and it is a very difficult activity because it will require you not to do anything.  Confused already?  Please bear with me.

forestA couple of weeks ago, together with around 20 other University colleagues, I attended the IAD’s “Practical strategies for deep reflection” workshop.  It was  led brilliantly by Iddo Oberski from Queen Margaret University, who took us on a short journey though a few secular meditation techniques.  They can be used with students to improve their concentration, deep thinking, creativity and so on.  The “contemplative pedagogy” movement which promotes these approaches has been recently growing in the US higher education, and something similar might be soon happening in the UK, too.  And this is where my blog post should finish.  If you are still interested reading about the theory behind “contemplative pedagogy” – Google is your friend.  However, if you are interested in more authentic knowing of what the fuss is all about – you should try it yourself.  How about now…? (Ref 1)

In the next three minutes allow yourself to just be with your mind.  It is like meeting an old friend for the first time in years.  There might be some awkwardness in the beginning, not knowing who this person is anymore.  To make time for being, for non-doing, may at first feel stilted and artificial.  Until you actually get into it, it can sound like just one more thing to do.

now_wall_clock_bw1Let us begin now.  First, close your eyes and focus on your posture.  Keep the back, neck, and head aligned vertically to whatever degree possible, with your hands resting on the knees.  Now, bring your attention to your breathing.  Feel it come in, feel it go out… Dwell in the present, moment by moment, breath by breath.  It sounds simple – but it is not easy.  Sometimes, after a minute or two, your distraction-hungry mind will have had enough.  What drives the body and mind to reject being still?  Why is not doing so hard to do?

Please do not answer these questions now.  Gently but firmly bring your attention back to the breathing, and continue to watch and feel and ride the waves of the breath…

These are true moments of wholeness, accessible to all of us – releasing into the stillness of being, accepting each moment as it unfolds, resting in awareness.

Ref 1. For the second part of my post I was relying on the book “Full Catastrophe Living’ by Jon Kabat-Zinn (which I hereby thoroughly recommend).

About the author

Robert2013Robert works in Information Services at the University of Edinburgh.  With (or even without) the modern technology, his  primary area of interest lies in supporting reflective learning for students, and how it can be captured in various forms to promote on-going critical thinking and greater self-awareness.

Recently he was seconded to the Institute for Academic Development where he was looking into potential models of enhancing the dialogue between Personal Tutors and Students.  You can also read his previous blog post about this work.


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