Shortly before the 2012 class, the first in a series of events occurred that would encourage the transition of my course and provide practical assistance. The State University ofNew York Community Mindfulness Retreat was one ofthem. There were several highlights and takeaways from the event. Heinz-Dieter Meyer, a colleague from the School of Education, read aloud an entry from his teaching journal. I was encouraged to hear a senior scholar of 20 years acknowledge his inner life and its connection with student learning. Walking to class one day, he reported having felt that the students had been unresponsive in the previous class and worried that today the class dynamic might ruin a discussion of his favorite author. “I decided not to respond to their lack of interest by flying into a frenzy of enthusiasm about how great this author was. I did not want to be the only moving part in the engine that was my class.” He made a snap decision to listen rather than talk, to discover what would happen rather than push an agenda. “So I started class with a few seconds of silence, followed by a deep breath, and a soft ‘be here now.' ” Things went very well. Since then, he has employed more listening and had the experience quite often. He believes his initial response was based on seeing himself as the main source of knowledge in the class. His listening response comes from seeing the class as a community of learners. “The best response is to breathe. As the students see you relax, they'll relax too.”
Overall, the retreat was exciting, frightening, and empowering ... a bit like a coming out party. There was nothing clandestine about the gathering, and yet several other attendees agreed that a felt sense of vulnerability came with revealing this side of themselves within a university setting. The wall, so closely guarded, between objectivity and subjectivity was beginning to be acknowledged as a more permeable membrane. Might this also serve as a declaration of amnesty for subjective experience long exiled by the pledge of allegiance to science? I came away with the intention to apply my long-term study and practice of mindfulness in the service of student learning.
I also discovered that there is a national group called Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education (ACMHE) and subsequently attended its fall 2012 conference. There, I listened to Harold Roth, a Religious Studies faculty at Brown University, speak of the trials and triumphs he experienced while establishing a contemplative studies initiative within the department, leading to the first university concentration offered in this subject in the country. He admitted that some of the fiercest opposition came from within his own Religious Studies Department. The difficult road to legitimacy for Religious Studies had been uphill all the way. Perhaps its status, partial and fragile, as with social work, required protection from threats both internal and external. Another soft science with self-esteem issues?
The conference offered me a potential affinity group, brain trust, and clearinghouse of resources—not an unusual outcome for a professional conference. Yet there was something unique about this one. It was the people and the atmosphere. I have often experienced academic conferences as competitive and alienating. Here, however, people seemed present, self-aware, approachable, and attentive. I had excellent conversations with researchers, therapists, and high school teachers.
There may be fewer obstacles to bringing mindfulness practices into professional degree programs where skills training is the norm. Greater barriers may exist where the focus is purely on academic goals with no precedent for valuing emotional intelligence or self-awareness. Academics with their own mindfulness practice may be drawn to the ACMHE conference and also well represented in professional programs hospitable to the introduction of these practices.
However, within the landscape of any given professional program, receptivity may vary. I realize now that the same dynamic tension between positions within myself is also reflected in the culture of my work organization. Throughout the process, my navigation of resistance has required courage, support, and persistence.
A long incubation period led up to 2013 during which dozens of incremental changes occurred. Also, the forces of sameness, safety, and security (reviewed later) became diluted and offset by the arrival of other noteworthy influences.
Content Coverage. Over time, I gradually traded out theoretical content and replaced it with practice skills, principles, and time for reflection.
Pace. This became more elastic. Occasionally, we could park and dig deeper. To permit this, I would forego some or all of the content that did not have a corresponding assignment.
Evidence Base. I was pleased if what I chose to include came with a substantial quantitative evidence base.
Fidelity. At times, there was a sensation of space walking from the mother ship that was the master syllabus. I remained tethered by a thin meandering line of reasoning back to the original course objectives. On closer inspection, the new content and methods could be categorized three ways related to course objectives: (1) completely aligned, as with “self-awareness” and “use of self”;
- (2) aligned, given an expanded definition of terms such as “assessment”; and
- (3) unaligned. I presumed this fell within the acceptable range of what academic deans call “drift.”
Student Satisfaction. Except for 2 years during which they flatlined, student evaluations nudged upward each year.
Privilege and Responsibility. Faint traces of privilege remained, a shadow of its former potency. Somehow, when I was not looking, the pendulum of my responsibility as a teacher had swung from the master syllabus to the students.
self-Talk. The imposter syndrome occasionally lurked, but it had faded considerably. My orientation toward induction, intuition, and subjective experience as valid evidence, and co-creating with students, though ever present, had now been integrated more fully into both my identity and my functionality as instructor.