Growing Contemplative Practices in Higher Education

open space

Recently I took part in an unusual event at Queen Margaret University that drew on Open Space Technology.  Despite the name, this is a delightfully low-tech approach that draws on the potential for groups of motivated people to organise themselves around a meaningful theme.  It usually starts with an open invitation from the facilitator to all the participants who sit in a circle.  The participants themselves identify the issues and opportunites to be addressed during the meeting.  They then move freely between small discussion groups, bringing and taking away information and ideas.

The theme for this open space, chosen by the facilitator, Iddo Oberski was “Growing Contemplative Practices in Higher Education?”

We began with no agenda: simply a group of 25 people sitting in a circle.  After a brief mindfulness meditation, Iddo started us off on a humorous note, pointing out that the question mark in the title seemed to go missing each time posters were printed, or messages sent out.  Holding our minds open with a questioning attitude, it seems, is tricky.  He introduced us to the 5 principles, and one law, of Open Space Technology:

 5 Principles 

  1. Whichever people come are the right people.
  2. Whenever it starts is the right time
  3. Wherever it is, is the right place
  4. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have: be prepared to be surprised!
  5. When it’s over, it’s over

One Law

“If at any time during our time together you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, go someplace else.”

I realised that this was going to be no ordinary conference.

All of the participants were invited to identify one or more topics for discussion and to allocate each to a slot in the timetable and a place in (or outside) the building. In this way a structure for the day was created.

Our topics were as different as we were. One participant was keen to investigate how to handle resistance to contemplative approaches among colleagues; another asked about the difference between contemplative practices and mindfulness; one was concerned with shifting from an individualistic to a community focus.  In most of the sessions we discussed questions, ideas, definitions and experiences.  In some we experienced unfamiliar activities – chalking a labyrinth on the ground and walking around it, or creating “form drawings.”

Cretan labyrinthA labyrinth is a winding path that offers the walker a contemplative experience.  Developed by Rudolf Steiner, form drawing is the practice of making freehand drawings of non-representational lines and patterns and is used in Steiner Schools as a contemplative, developmental activity with young children.

So what was I able to contribute and what did I learn?

First of all, I was less reticent than I usually am when listening to formal presentations, but more open than I tend to be when presenting “my own” ideas.  It seems I was able to free myself from the either/or of polite listener and enthusiastic presenter.  I felt very comfortable with both speaking and listening and I enjoyed moving between the groups whenever I was ready for a change.  I think that Open Space Technology has the potential to support meetings and discussions very different from those we are accustomed to.  I plan to try out this format in my own teaching and development work.  Wouldn’t this be a refreshing way to co-create a learning and teaching workshop or an experience-sharing session?

Secondly, I was able to develop my thinking about contemplative practices in higher education. I enjoyed a debate with a colleague in which we uncovered a striking difference between the ways we understand what it means to read contemplatively. For him, it means coming “naked” to a text and letting go of all preconceptions.  For me, it means accepting all the “stuff” I carry with me and bringing it to my reading.  This made me think carefully, too, about “inner” and “outer” realities, about the “profound” and the “superficial.”  I am beginning to see that these are sometimes unhelpful labels.  More and more, I’m interested in the surfaces and edges of things, which seem to me no less real or valuable than centres or depths. And I experience my “self” not as a pure essence, nor as a hidden core, but as rather diffuse, entangled, and intermixed.

It was a serious day, and I found it very intense; at the same time I laughed more than I usually do at a conference – big, loud belly-laughs.  It was great.

About the author

Daphne Loads is an academic developer in the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh.

photo (2)


Open space technology:

Labyrinth: Cretan-labyrinth-circular-disc.svg


One comment

  1. Thanks for this Daphne, what as wonderful account of this event. Glad you were part of it!

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