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 Winter 2011

Contemplation

During Antioch-College’s final commencement ceremony in April 2008, literature professor Jean Gregorek addressed the community with a galvanizing speech titled “A Green Space for the Mind,” comparing liberal arts education with the basic human need for access to nature and open space – parks, forests, and other undeveloped landscapes. Though both might appear “inefficient” and neither tends to generate much money, they remain essential to our sense of well-being, she said.

Zen stack of rocks

In Gregorek’s analogy, green spaces are not only vital to functioning ecosystems, but also to the cohesion and sense of “rootedness” of a particular community. The importance of green spaces relies precisely on their availability to everyone, not just those who can afford private land and big yards. Similarly, although the liberal arts are frequently accused of being expensive, impractical, and elitist, Antiochians know that the creative and critical thinking cultivated by a liberal arts education sustains awareness, exploration, and civic involvement – all necessary variables of functioning democracy and a free society.

“The ‘green spaces’ of the liberal arts encourage the idea that each individual should spend his or her brief time on this planet meaningfully and responsibly,” Gregorek said. (She delivered the speech again later that year when accepting the Morgan Award from the Alumni Association on behalf of the faculty and staff of the College who rallied to save it.)

Antioch College has come a long way in the last two and a half years, and as the campus now prepares to welcome students this fall, the ideal of building an institution that embraces, teaches, and questions the means of living responsibly is as strong as ever. As it re-establishes a commitment to pioneering education for positive social change, Antioch College is also turning its attention specifically to that most crucial aspect of any education: the mind.

The College will host a daylong symposium titled “A Green Space for the Mind” on April 9, 2011. The goal of this symposium is to introduce the fundamental principles of mindfulness training in higher education to the College and the community of Yellow Springs.

Presenters include Linda-Susan Beard, an associate professor of literature at Bryn Mawr College and a monk in the Emmaus Community in Vestaburg, Michigan; John Makransky, professor of Buddhism and comparative theology at Boston College and the founding teacher for the Foundation for Active Compassion; Harold Roth, professor of religious and East Asian studies and the director of the Contemplative Studies Initiative at Brown University; and Clifford Saron, associate research scientist at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain and the MIND Institute.

The panel will be moderated by Robert Pryor, the founding director of the Antioch Education Abroad Buddhist Studies Program, which was founded at Antioch College. Prospective admitted students, who will be partaking in an overlapping visitors‘ weekend, will also be invited. The symposium is co-sponsored by the Southwestern Ohio Council of Higher Education.

Daniel Goleman, author of the now-seminal work Emotional Intelligence, will deliver a lecture via satellite on his newest book, Ecological Intelligence, which explores the environmental impact of consumerism. Environmental activism informed by an awareness of interdependency is a growing facet within the field of mindfulness training. Goleman is a member of the Board of Directors of the Mind and Life Institute, which, in dialogue with the Dalai Lama “promotes and supports rigorous, multi-disciplinary scientific investigation of the mind which will lead to the development and dissemination of practices that cultivate the mental qualities of attention, emotional balance, kindness, compassion, confidence, and happiness.” Goleman’s son, Hanuman, is also an Antioch College alumnus.

For those who see academic scholarship, teaching, and mindfulness efforts as interdependent, Antioch College is a logical home. Pryor founded the Antioch Education Abroad Buddhist Studies Program in Bodh Gaya, India, more than thirty years ago (the program remained with Antioch University when the institutions split in the fall of 2009), and he knows that college students are often as eager to learn about their own minds as they are about the world around them. Meditation requires careful attention to one’s emotions, memories, and thoughts. This process can easily translate into a kind of engaged patience in a new culture.

“Watching closely allows you to be empathetic,” Pryor said. Meditation “helps in cross-cultural learning because it heightens awareness and increases stability. Over the years, Pryor’s students have discovered for themselves that a steady mindfulness practice makes culture shock less overwhelming.

Bamboo

In the new design for Antioch College, all students will be required to complete an extended period in a cross-cultural co-op work assignment, either domestically or abroad. But culture shock won‘t just come in those settings, Pryor said. Students will face a new culture on campus, and whenever they move to a new home, surrounded by new people. “College itself is a new culture,” he said.

 

Mindfulness training and contemplative education initiatives that integrate a secular meditation practice into academic environments have been on the rise in both undergraduate and graduate programs across the country.

Traditionally, mindfulness practices were fundamental aspects of both Eastern and Western belief systems, though the current approaches to mindfulness in higher education are nondenominational. The late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who was educated at Oxford, founded Naropa University in 1974 on the principle that Western academic inquiry and Eastern contemplative practices could combine to create an ideal learning environment. According to Naropa’s philosophy: “contemplative education is learning infused with the experience of awareness, insight, and compassion for oneself and others, honed through the practice of sitting meditation … The rigor of these disciplined practices prepares the mind to process information in new and perhaps unexpected ways.”

Much of the basic pedagogy stems from establishing a silent sitting meditation routine that, through a focus on each breath, looks simply to bring one’s awareness to the present moment. As thoughts and feelings inevitably arise, the general guidance given is to gently bring the attention back to the breath – regardless of how many times one might be distracted and have to begin again.

Sometimes, instructions include counting to ten, starting over each time a thought takes one away from the breath. Additionally, while in meditation, students are often encouraged to simply “name” their emotions as they arise as a means for acknowledging their feelings without defaulting into them. Beyond actual sitting meditation, other aspects include brief periods of silence in the classroom and exercises for emotional training, in which techniques for developing empathy, open-mindedness, and compassion are actively taught.

Ideally, such practices allow for the opportunity to consider one’s own thought patterns, reactions, and habitual tendencies with new awareness. In an educational setting in particular, the hope is that this kind of instruction can allow students to engage directly with their own minds, ultimately encouraging a more active role in their own educations. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founding executive director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, mindfulness training can slowly develop the “opportunity to make conscious choices rather than react unconsciously.”

From physics to theater and architecture, the instructors embracing these practices often speak in terms of enabling students to enter more deeply “into” a subject rather than simply confronting it as somehow separate from themselves. Though approaches and subject matters vary, what many instructors value most highly is the pursuit of these activities alongside their students, which underscores the ongoing nature of learning for everyone involved.

 

Contemplative education has been credited with helping students develop a more focused ability to concentrate and to be more deliberate about their studies; it also contains the potential to lead students to engage with what or how they‘re learning in new ways, once they‘re off their meditation cushions and back in the classroom. For example, contemplative education could temper some students‘ desire to be constantly plugged in. With texting, Facebook, Twitter, and iPods, most Millennials don‘t have to search far for multiple distractions, even or especially if they‘re alone in their rooms, “studying.” In his November 21 New York Times article “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction,” Matt Richtel reports that as teenagers grow up habituated to such persistent stimuli, the wiring in their developing brains is changing, resulting in less sleep, less focus, and a compromised ability to prioritize.

Photo of Ripples in water

There is some evidence that mindfulness techniques counter the negative impact of a culture of chronic distraction. Following his own silent mindfulness retreat, Robert Wright, also writing for the Times, reported that “there’s an illuminating synergy” between disconnecting from technology and pursuing moment-to-moment awareness. Even returning to the computer and the smartphone after spending time with his own mind, Wright explained, changed the way he used technology and helped him to be more aware of the choices he was making – and the speed at which he was making them.

Today, those championing the inclusion of mindfulness practices in secular curriculums come not just from the plateaus of the Tibetan Himalayas, but more often, like Jon Kabat-Zinn, from the molecular biology labs of MIT or, as with poet Marilyn Nelson, who taught poetry and contemplation practices to West Point cadets, from departments of literature.

At the universities now offering programs in contemplative education, we see this same interdisciplinary diversity. From Harvard’s Mind/Brain/Behavior Interfaculty Initiative, Brown’s Contemplative Studies Initiative, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Mindfulness-Based Campus Community, and the University of California San Diego’s Center for Mindfulness, contemplation on campus is gaining national recognition and popularity.

In preparing Antioch College’s new curriculum, several members of the former faculty, staff, and alumni felt that including a similar opportunity here could prove exciting and beneficial. Supporters of contemplative education believe that mindfulness provides students with an opportunity for reflection and introspection that can help not only balance the demands of their busy lives, but also allow for the exploration of important -connections.

Makransky, the Boston College professor who will participate in Antioch College’s April symposium, says he believes that including contemplative education into Antioch College’s “Three C’s” mix of classroom, cooperative education, and community will be instrumental in providing students with an opportunity for “learning that engages the whole being.”

Antioch College’s new curriculum will divide the year into four 12-week quarters. While on campus, students will take two intensive block courses that will run for five and a half weeks each. For the duration of the quarter, students will also take one foreign language course and participate in a Global Seminar on a particular topic: food, energy, health, governance, or water. Students will also participate in on-campus work programs, all of which will make for a busy term.

How the contemplation component will ultimately take shape is still being determined. It is possible that, for example, a regular training in meditation for students, faculty, and staff would be offered each quarter. This program could be supported and continued on a voluntary basis by offshoot sitting groups. Symposium organizer Aimee Maruyama ’96, a senior major gifts officer and director of foundation relations, describes the intention behind April’s symposium on contemplative education as the “start of the conversation” that will ideally establish a meaningful dialogue about mindfulness that can support the new College’s development “from the ground up.” Sustaining such an enterprise would demonstrate institutional commitment, Maruyama said.

Sharon Salzberg, one of the country’s leading meditation teachers, has written recently about the practical usefulness of mindfulness, particularly among caretakers, for The Huffington Post.

While she was specifically addressing people such as parents of young children, children of aging parents, and social workers, the concept of mindful caretaking seems equally applicable to those attempting to “take care” of a re-emerging community such as Antioch College, a project that will require compromise, patience, and a lot of energy.

“Compassion is the trembling or the quivering of the heart in response to suffering,” Salzberg writes. “Equanimity is a spacious stillness that can accept things as they are. The balance of compassion and equanimity allows us to profoundly care, and yet not get overwhelmed and unable to cope because of that caring.”

Given Antioch College’s long-standing commitment to fighting for social justice, mindfulness training would ideally help all members of the community find and replenish their own resilience. The hope is that these tools for generating awareness will not only inform action in the outside world, but also work to solidify caring friendships and honest relationships among students.

Red Gerber daisy

For as wonderful and formative as the college years are, anyone who has survived them also knows how challenging they can be. These challenges are intensified by the many moves and adaptations required by the distinctive Antioch College mix of co-op and classroom. While traveling and co-op carry their own rewards, spending extended periods away from the familiar – one’s college, home, and family – can be draining. When practiced regularly, mindfulness can provide a grounding opportunity for students to observe their desires and fears and to familiarize themselves with how their own brains react to change. Often just recognizing these emotions helps to lessen their grip. Simultaneously, as Pryor explains, mindfulness can enable students to “broaden their perspectives by examining other perspectives in a way that isn‘t threatening.”

As Antioch College students from every era know, despite our best intentions, it can be tough figuring out how to win “some victory for humanity,” especially when it’s time to repack the suitcase. Mindfulness can help students navigate an inner stability while simultaneously developing and deepening compassion for others.

 

Teaching at Tibet House in New York City recently, Salzberg made the important point that mindfulness is not so much about “what’s happening but how we‘re relating to what’s happening.”

As the Antioch College community begins this next chapter, it’s safe to say that much remains to be seen. While incoming students along with the incoming faculty commit themselves to continuing our tradition of creative and integrative learning, everyone will have to “relate to what’s happening” with endurance and fluidity.

Ideally, the opportunities for mindfulness training, beginning with April’s symposium, will nurture these efforts for many years to come.


Liesl Schwabe ’97 is a lecturer in writing at Yeshiva College. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.