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Shambhala Sun | July 2009

Barry Boyce's The Mindful Society:
The Contemplative Curriculum

A small but growing cadre of university professors who integrate contemplative disciplines into academic training are staking out a unique position in the longstanding debate about what is “higher” in higher education. Through a variety of innovative programs, they’ve been bringing contemplative disciplines onto university campuses as a way to increase students’ attention and decrease stress, give deeper meaning to university education as a means to self-knowledge, and foster community and cooperation as a salve to the competitive atmosphere of the academy.

Harold Roth, professor of Religious Studies at Brown University and founder of the Contemplative Studies Initiative there told me, “I’m very encouraged by how this movement is gaining momentum. We’re at the beginning of the development of a major new academic field, one that will be potentially quite significant in changing the face of higher education in North America. It asks us to deeply consider what a higher education really means.”

According to Geraldine DeLuca, who has been teaching English at Brooklyn College for thirty-seven years, the City University of New York (CUNY) Contemplative Network began “about five years ago, when David Forbes came to me with the idea of starting a contemplative studies center at Brooklyn. We got a $20,000 grant from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, and we both started to teach courses with contemplative components.” Forbes is in the education department and wrote a book, Boyz 2 Buddhas, about his experiences introducing meditation practice to high school athletes. The grant proposal included a plan to start a faculty study group at Brooklyn, which has now grown to about a dozen faculty CUNY-wide who form the core of the network and as many as a hundred others who use or would like to use contemplative disciplines in their classes.

The network held its second “Mindful Learners Conference” on April 3, focusing on classroom practices and information sharing among faculty in different subject areas. Sixty faculty attended. The day began and ended with meditation, and included a keynote lecture by Arthur Zajonc, professor of physics at Amherst College and a well-known advocate of contemplative inquiry as a learning tool. Zajonc spoke of the value of asking students to hold an idea in mind long enough to appreciate all of its dimensions and of holding contradictory ideas in mind at the same time. He drew on his new book, Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry: When Knowing becomes Love.

Another highlight, DeLuca said, was a presentation by Maria Arias of CUNY’s law school, who discussed preparing her students to work within the judicial system not simply “from the point of view of right and wrong but also from the perspective of compassion.”

DeLuca begins her own classes with a period of meditation and “paying attention to what’s going on in the body.” It’s important, she says, “to have students drop down a level in their mind and body. In many kinds of writing, you really have to get underneath the surface to write anything that’s worthy of anyone’s attention. At its core, writing is a contemplative activity.”

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