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Shambhala Sun | July 2011
You'll find this article on page 54 of the magazine.

Answering the Call to Serve

STUART LORD, president of Naropa University, on the value of contemplative education.

Elisabeth is a student who has committed her life to service, reflection, and transformation. Her commitment was born during an educational trip to Guatemala. Instead of learning the language and culture intellectually in a classroom, Elisabeth chose to immerse herself in the way of life of the Guatemalan people. The sight of a mother carrying water from the river to her family, the sounds of laughter during a fiesta, the taste of fresh-cooked tortillas, and seeing the exhaustion and concern on the faces of hundreds of people who walked miles through the mountains to see the visiting doctor with their sick children—through these experiences Elisabeth connected with the hearts of the Guatemalan people and shared in their lives.

Living with a family in the rural mountains, Elisabeth absorbed the language and customs from the first rays of the morning light, until her day’s learning ended as the last dying embers of the fire in the family’s one-room hut faded to darkness. Such experiential opportunities to serve and to learn connect students to the life source of genuine authentic community, allowing them to go beyond the limitations of traditional education and reflect on the deeper questions of meaning, life, and purpose. While most don’t realize it at the time, what they are experiencing is a form of contemplative education.

At Naropa University — a world leader in contemplative education in Boulder, Colorado — meditative practices and awareness trainings are woven not only into our curriculum, but into the very lives of our students and the university community itself. Today, higher education’s successes and failures are rooted in the inability to connect the mind and heart. We have developed keen minds but have failed to cultivate conscience and heart in our students. We prepare them for the latest iteration of the assembly line, but do not foster leaders who have the capacity to meet the world as it is and change it for the better. We educate in a vacuum. At Naropa, our solution is to step out of the void and into the world, reforging higher education into a holistic training that is grounded in contemplative pedagogy.

As the president of Naropa University, I’m often asked, “What is contemplative education?” At its core, contemplative education nourishes and supports a heartfelt and informed intelligence. Contemplative and meditative practices unlock the power of profound inward observation, enabling the learner to tap into a wellspring of understanding. In Cultivating the Spirit, How College Can Enhance Students’ Inner Lives, Alexander Astin, Helen Astin, and Jennifer Lindholm write, “The use of contemplative practices in higher education has demonstrated its positive effects on cognitive performance, releasing stress, and aiding in the development of the whole person, including development of interpersonal skills, emotional balance, and academic skills.”

A 2010 white paper produced by the Mind & Life Education Research Network cites the benefits of contemplative practice on learners: “Drawing upon research in neuroscience, cognitive science, developmental psychology, and education, as well as scholarship from contemplative traditions concerning the cultivation of positive development, we highlight a set of mental skills and socio-emotional dispositions that we believe are central to the aims of education in the twenty-first century. These include self-regulatory skills associated with emotion and attention, self-representations, and prosocial dispositions such as empathy and compassion. These positive qualities and dispositions can be strengthened through systematic contemplative practice. Such practice induces plastic changes in brain function and structure, supporting prosocial behavior and academic success in young people.”

In explaining the positive impact of contemplative practices on the learner, teacher, and the learning environment, Mirabai Bush, senior fellow and associate director at the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, says, “The practices have had an extraordinary range of effects on the teachers, the students, the classroom, and on learning, teaching, research, and personal relationships. These include increased concentration, greater capacity for synthetic thinking, conceptual flexibility, and an appreciation for a different type of intellectual process, distinct from the linear, analytical and product-oriented processes so often valued in contemporary education.” Although the benefits of this kind of holistic approach to education have been largely overlooked in traditional, Western educational systems, interest in contemplative higher education is growing, and some six hundred faculty and college administrators have now joined the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education (www.ACMHE.org).


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