Teaching as a Form of Contemplative Practice

Maybe you’re like me–the pairing of  the words teaching and contemplation is about as harmonious as fingernails on a piece of slate.  My response to that pairing is rooted in my early experiences with contemplative practice. My great-aunt was a Sister of the Good Shepherd and lived in a cloistered convent. When I questioned my mother about what the word cloister meant, she told me that the sisters could not leave the convent and that all of their visits were conducted from behind a screen.

“What do they do all day?”, I asked my mother.

“Pray,” was her simple response.

To a little girl who loved people, that  isolated life of prayer and seeing visitors from behind a screen made no sense.  Contemplation seemed to be reserved for nuns in a cloister–it had nothing to do with the outside world where I lived. My early experience may have clouded my understanding of the riches waiting in contemplative practice, but half-a-lifetime later, I am finally discovering contemplation’s gifts.

I began meditating in earnest about eight years ago when I was working in a challenging teaching situation. The angry woman I taught with  often used sarcasm with the students. Sometimes she was openly hostile and contemptuous of my ideas. I never knew what I would find when I worked with her, so I often found myself in a state of hyper-vigilance.

A friend suggested that I try meditation to help me calm my mind, especially at night when I began to dread the next day and replay all kinds of awful scenarios from our interactions. At first, the only effect I could see was that I slept well after I meditated. But as time passed, I found myself calmer in the face of my colleague’s tirades. I began to observe her behavior and to notice how I felt inside. I breathed more easily. And I was able to choose my words and actions rather than shutting down or fleeing.

Another gift of mediation was that I began to talk back to my initial judgments. If I saw my administrator, I sent her love instead of negative thoughts. When I had a challenging student in the class, I paused for a moment before I spoke. I was more tuned into my bodily sensations and how my inner state was affecting my actions.

Meditation
The Tree of Contemplative Practices

I began to realize that all of the skills I practiced during mediation were slowly showing up during my work hours. Just as I had learned to observe any  thoughts that arose during my sitting practice, I was now observing thoughts during the day, reigning in my wandering mind. In that brief space between observation and awareness, I found some clarity and calm. Teaching was actually becoming a form of contemplative practice.

Mirabi Bush, a mediation teacher, was recently a guest on Krista Tippett;s radio show, On Being. Bush discusses how she learned mediation in India doing the 1960s, and how she returned to the United States, “… when I came back two years later, I was pregnant and married and had a child then. So I couldn’t — when we first came back, meditation — we still had the model of it[meditation] being monastic. And so having a child and being a meditation teacher was just — no one could imagine that… ” (from On Being, 9-2016).

But Bush goes on to talk about her work in the world now and how she creates mindfulness programs in businesses such as Google, where she teaches a program called “Search Inside Yourself.”  The program blends a cultivation of mindfulness and emotional intelligence to help Google’s engineers bring a deeper awareness to the human dimensions of their work and their own role in the experiences and policies they create for people.

But back to the classroom—back to the place where kids daydream and  teachers count the minutes until the class ends. In that crowded space, mindfulness can be as powerful a tool as a smart board, benefitting both teachers and students.   I leave you with the words of William James, writing in The Principles of Psychology from 1890:

“The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again is the very root of judgment, character, and will.”  

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