Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Coming to know

Teaching Birding with Buddha

Reddish Egret CC*BY Katy & Sam
A Master's Project at Naropa can be just about anything. I taught Birding with Buddha as my project. It was pretty straightforward by the time I started teaching it. I had translated class materials I earlier developed the first time I taught the course in 2011 to an e-book, which would be the text for the new course. I offered it through the Austin Zen Center, and eight people signed up. I asked them to read a chapter or two from the book each week before class met so that we could spend our class time practicing contemplative observation, writing about our observations, and sharing our experiences. The participants left copies with me of the journal entries they created during the reflective periods of our class time. That was the basic plan.

What I wanted to study, however, went beyond what one might learn about students' experiences during four 90-minute classes. I was investigating “the whole ineffable thing,” aspects of experience that are untouched by our labels, our conventional ways of relating our experiences to others. I wondered how contemplative practices facilitate access to that realm of experience. So I undertook a number of other practices that prepared me for the experience, both as a student of what I would learn, and a teacher of the participants in the study. These practices are what Naropa calls "methods," but they have little in common with the methods I learned about at the University of Texas, for example, when I was preparing to do research in information studies. These methods are much more personal and experiential. They don't require that we be separate from what we study. Quite to the contrary -- they focus our attention on our connection to everything. That is their magic.


I meditated every day. As I had learned, this practice is vital to my ability to stay present with what happens around me, from moment-to-moment. Awareness is a key component of contemplative observation and teaching, awareness of one’s inner and outer experience. Meditation is the method for cultivating awareness.


I also practiced a special kind of contemplative observation called, ‘in-the-moment.’ It keeps the experience of presence fresh in my day-to-day life.

September 2012 
This morning on our walk through a neighborhood, I did in-the-moment. I noticed my mind was grabbing at the gardens, trying to take in every detail as we walked quickly by. There was a sort of desperate quality to it, of wanting to take it all in. 
But there was also a very judgmental quality: gardens got a "good" or "bad" label almost instantly.  
I breathed into these feelings of wanting to see everything and judging, and the feeling of my knowing what a good garden was (being right about the quality of gardening), and everything changed. Suddenly I saw everything that was there in front of me as an offering for my walk. The grasping was gone. The judgment was gone. The need to be right about what makes a good garden was gone. I simply saw everything, from the grass to the weeds, to the flowers, shrubs, architectural features, sculptures, garden art of various kinds, all of it was an offering for the world to see (Personal journal entry, September 2012).

That freedom from judgment is really special. In-the-moment facilitates that. You become fully present, aware of the spaciousness inherent in any situation, and you gain a new perspective that enables you to act more skillfully and effectively in any given situation. It’s especially useful when you’re experiencing emotions like those I was experiencing on my walk. Based on Brown’s (2012a) instructions, this practice can be done at any time in any place. I always start by noticing my inner experience without judging or trying to change it. I feel my body, just as it is. Next, I feel the earth (or floor or other surface upon which I sit or stand) and the space surrounding me, feeling myself a part of my natural environment. Next I focus on the space around me that is not filled with anything, the space between and inside things, including the space inside my body – the spaciousness that inheres in every situation. Then I fully take in the situation I am in, bringing my awareness to focus on an object, person or the entire scene. Keeping a sense of my inner energy and body sensations, and letting go of thoughts, I let the situation speak to me. I end the observations by pausing a moment as I let go of the experience. I breathe deeply, noticing again my inner state, along with any questions or insights I might have. The whole thing takes less than a minute.

In-the-moment insights seem to ‘come from nothing’ as Lee Worley (2001) might describe it – from the pause, from feeling fully present, from contacting the sense of spaciousness that exists in every situation we are a part of. They are hard to explain, but refreshing and valuable. It makes me smile to experience how suddenly and mysteriously things change.

I sometimes think I see the essence of in-the-moment in other contemplative practices: Pema Chodron suggests that especially when we “miss the mark,” that is, when we fail to meet our own expectations, instead of “spinning off into self-criticism,” we “look at what’s happening around us while simultaneously being aware of what’s happening inside us” (2012, Chapter 6):
First, come into the present. Flash on what’s happening with you right now. Be fully aware of your body, its energetic quality. Be aware of your thoughts and emotions. 
Next, feel your heart, literally placing your hand on your chest if you find that helpful. This is a way of accepting yourself just as you are in that moment, a way of saying, ‘This is my experience right now, and it’s okay.’
Then go into the next moment without any agenda (Ibid.).

Thich Nhat Hanh (2006) tells us about a similar practice he shares through a Gatha he calls Ending the Day: “We can practice beginning anew at any moment of our lives” (pp. 117–118).

I also see a relationship between in-the-moment and the simple practice of coming back to the breath without judgment when my mind has wandered during meditation as well as the demanding practice of tonglen, breathing in a painful feeling, my own or another’s, and breathing out relief, acceptance and equanimity. Chodron describes the practice:
Right on the spot, you own your feelings completely. Instead of pushing the emotions away, you’re completely in touch with them… Tonglen puts us in touch with all the others who are just like us, who feel the way we do (2012, Chapter 7).
Most important, in-the-moment has become a reliable way for me to make daily use of the special teachings we received in our second summer at Naropa, wherein we experienced the inseparability and mutability of what appear to us as opposing poles of emotion. For example, we might experience anger and jealousy as unpleasant; clarity and efficiently getting a job done as good. Or we might see arrogance and manipulation as bad; generosity and listening deeply as good. We learned we could transform unskillful states of being to their more skillful expressions, for example, anger to clear seeing and perspective, because they are not separate. They are all manifestations of the same basic energy.

Transforming unskillful emotional states takes familiarity with them so that you recognize them in yourself, recognize when you are about to act on an emotion out of habit in a harmful, unproductive way. You catch yourself in the act, so to speak, and then sink into the physical sensation of the emotion (such as anger or obsession), contemplating it deeply like you would stare into a candle flame. There is no intellectual analysis in this. It is pure mindfulness of the physical sensation of the emotion.
When you can simply be with the sensation of your emotion and experience it fully at the non-conceptual level, you will notice a dynamic reversal taking place … The energy … has a vast still center; like the eye of a hurricane… When you realize the empty nature of the sensation of emotional pain, the pain dissolves into an ecstatic sensation of presence and awareness (Chogyam & Dechen, 2003, p. 240).
This sounds quite dramatic, like magic. It is. So is in-the-moment. The transformation I recounted above on the walk through an Austin neighborhood was as close to miraculous as I experience in my day-to-day life. Seeing judgment fall away and perspective shift instantly does seem like a miracle.

The secret of both in-the-moment and this practice of transforming unskillful states to more skillful ones is full presence with what’s happening in your body, your physical experience of an emotion, which brings about awareness of that spacious “vast, still center” that exists in every situation, even our most distressing emotional states. Contacting that center seems to free up the energy that we’re using to keep the unskillful state going. When that happens, the unskillful state collapses leaving clarity, compassion, generosity, peacefulness, and joy, among others, in its place.

It is easy to forget that the painful emotional states and the joyous ones are not separate. It’s not about ‘getting rid of’ some and keeping the others.
October 28, 2012

But I came to think that wisdom would vanquish distortion, that experiencing space within the pain of separation would permanently dissolve it. It doesn’t work that way. Chogyam and Dechen continue:

There is no sudden breakthrough that remains forever – there are only sudden glimpses. But the glimpses encourage us to see more until, gradually, we develop the ability to integrate these experiences of unconditioned being with the rest of life (p. 241).
So, it’s not about achieving freedom from pain. It’s about seeing how inseparable our wisdom is from our pain -- a hair’s breadth away. Not two. Brown (2012b, p. 6) alludes to this too:
Awareness continually dawns, naturally. We can cultivate conditions that encourage that dawning, but we needn’t be hard on ourselves when we snooze, reject, or cling. This perspective on awareness that comes and goes, helps us develop compassion for others who are also loosing their minds.
(Harper, 2012, p. 5).
In-the-moment contemplations were indispensable to building the experiential foundation that enabled me to accept the more subtle invitation to experience that teaching Birding with Buddha would offer me.

Haiku and Ikebana

I began incorporating Haiku and Ikebana into the reflective element of nature contemplation in early October 2012, and found them so useful that I decided to make them part of my study. I wrote them into the Birding with Buddha book, I introduced them during class, and I practiced them myself.

After a period of contemplative observation, I reflect on what I have seen and heard by writing. First, I describe the scene and what happened. Then I describe my thoughts about it, how I felt emotionally, and the sensations I noticed in my body. These two together, the contemplative observation and period of reflection constitute the basic instruction for Birding with Buddha.

At the end of the reflection, I pause, breathe, feel myself fully present in the space, and write the first line of a three-line poem. I find that I don’t have to 'think up' the next two lines, and they do much more than merely sum up the experience:
October 8, 2012
Haiku and Ikebana drew out for me the non-conceptual aspects of the observation, qualities I would not even want to try to describe in words. Such words would rob the experience of its power as an image and a feeling.  
It's not like looking at the Haiku and the Ikebana later necessarily brings up the experience and feeling, rather, the time and attention to creating them prolonged the immersion in the experience and feeling long enough to make of them stronger memories. The actual visual experience easily comes to mind, any time, along with the attendant feeling tone (Personal journal entry, Oct. 8, 2012).
When I add Ikebana to the mix of reflective contemplations, I follow the written reflection I just described with a period of pausing, breathing and feeling myself fully present in the space as for Haiku. But instead of, or in addition to, the Haiku, I gather five stems for an arrangement. I allow my gaze to be soft as I wander around in the space (usually my garden). I stop, let my eyes focus on the plant that first attracts my attention, and cut a stem. I repeat this step until I have five stems. I take them inside, choose a vase, and trim and arrange them with a minimum of thought.
October 10, 2012
Perception: I heard two slurred notes then saw a tiny pale bird come down from the center of the tree to a feeder hanging in plain sight. He landed on the backside though. I only saw his tiny head popping out on the right over and over again. He flew down to the bowl of water below the feeder, perched on the edge and dipped his head towards the water several times. Then he flew up and to the right and out of sight. 
Thoughts: The feeder swaying in the breeze was rhythmic, as was the bird's head popping out from the back of the feeder over and over. I wondered, however, if I'd get a better look. I got bored and wished there were more birds. But then I was delighted when he flew down to the bowl, especially the way he flew, floating like a leaf. And I was shocked when he abruptly departed.  
Feelings: I felt interested, noticed a bit of straining to see the bird because he was so tiny and behind the feeder. I felt myself smile when he fluttered down to the water, and surprise when he flew. It took my breath away. I took a deep breath and felt the finality of the event, like it was a dream.


Tiny yellow head
Centers my attention
Oh! You fall like a leaf




Sometimes I journal when I travel to watch birds with my friends, and even sometimes when I bird at home. These reflections help me to better understand the effect contemplative observation has on my experience of nature generally. I use the same journal to reflect about the experience of contemplative teaching.


Garden classroom
The four classes were 90 minutes long, each. I offered the students before each class a chapter or two from the book, Birding with Buddha. At the start of class, I read aloud a passage, and then we practiced contemplative observation following the instructions for that week’s chapter from the book. I practiced as well, making every effort to fully embody all aspects of the contemplative teacher.

We held all of the classes in my garden, so we got to see spring come to life from late February through mid-March. While our first contemplation each week was from the book, our second contemplation was unrelated to birding, and chosen to help the students generalize the practice to other contexts. The contemplations on birds are at the end of each chapter in the book as the “Contemplative field trips.” Richard Brown introduced most of the complementary contemplations during the second half of our classes in the Summer Intensives. I presented them much as I learned them from him, with the exception of Beneath the Filters. I based it on two Contemplative Education Master’s Project presentations, Amy Howard’s in the Summer 2011, and Joanna Vausberg’s in Summer 2012.

After each class, and at the end of the fourth class, I read my participants’ journal entries to see whether participants were able to follow the instructions, and what they experienced with the practice.

I invited all of the participants to discuss their experiences of contemplation. Everyone participated. I did not record these or take notes. My own contemplative teaching experience was most intense during these discussions. I was as completely present as I could be, feeling into the subtle communications taking place – gesture, expression, body posture, tone, and other communicative elements. In staying present and receiving each contribution as an offering, as Kelly Petrie, one of my instructors, so nicely described her own contemplative practice of facilitating a discussion, I compassionately noticed my personal expectations and any judgments that arose in myself in response to what was offered … and opened to whatever arose and accepted the offerings with clarity and compassion (Ibid.). Clarity and compassion. What a combination. I reflected on the experience of contemplative teaching in my journal after each class ended. In effect, the classes were my contemplative observation of myself, as Kelly had suggested.

Anyone may acquire a copy of Birding with Buddha from the iBookstore, or as a pdf. See the earlier entry here, Birding with Buddha.



Brown, R. C. (2012a). In-the-moment observation practice. Unpublished lecture for online course EDU635e Contemplative Teaching, Boulder, Colorado: Naropa University.

Brown, R. C. (2012b). The quality of awareness: A transition to the ten aspects of knowledge. Unpublished lecture for online course EDU735e Transforming Curriculum and Instruction, Boulder, CO: Naropa University.

Chodron, P. (2012). Living beautifully with uncertainty and change. Boston & London: Shambhala.

Chogyam, N., & Dechen, K. (2003). Spectrum of ecstasy: Embracing the five wisdom emotions of vajrayana Buddhism (1st ed.). New York & London: Aro Books.

Hanh, T. N. (2006). Present moment wonderful moment: Mindfulness verses for daily living (2nd ed.). Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.

Harper, G. (2012, October 28). Not five, not four, not three, not two, not one. Unpublished paper for online course EDU 735 Transforming Instruction and Curriculum, Boulder, CO: Naropa University.

Worley, L. (2001). Coming from nothing. Boulder, Colorado: Turquoise Dragon Press.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Contemplating nature

Bewick's Wren CC*BY Alejandro Erickson
October 28, 2012

Leading a small group of birders on a sunny Sunday morning in the Texas Hill Country. I hear a bird scolding in a tree right in front of the group, only about 15' away. I see it through binoculars easily. I see its eyebrow, its taupe brown color, hear it sing a line or two and instantly know it's a Bewick's Wren. It flies out of the tree to a nearby low rock wall and others see it and recognize it as a wren. I call it as a Bewick's Wren and everyone turns away from it.

This is classic field trip behavior. Identify the bird ASAP, notify the group, call the name, game over. No one looked at the Wren again. Not even me (Personal journal entry, October 28, 2012).

Birding is like that. Compulsive almost. Get the name, fast. Good! Move on. That’s what made me think it might be a good fit with contemplative observation. Slow the whole thing down. Relax with what was going on. Be there then. To be a little more precise, I thought that the idea of contemplative birding would be to lengthen and be comfortable with the time of not knowing – the time between when you first are aware of a bird and the moment when your mind attaches a label to it – and just observe the bird in all its aspects without words. What happened in practice, however, was that my mind would race to close the gap between seeing or hearing, and naming the bird. Expanding that time seemed impossible. Luckily, it was unnecessary. It took only a short time for me to realize that contemplative birding wasn’t actually about not naming. It was about observing the mind's desire to name, and letting go of that, along with the name when it appeared.

That's just basic meditation practice applied to birding -- watch the mind’s desire to wander, to grasp, and let thoughts go and return to the present. That same kind of non-grasping way of being with what’s happening is at the heart of contemplative teaching and contemplative observation. You focus attention on what you see out there, take note of what you think about that, and what you feel, physically, in the body, and emotionally, and then let it go. Reflecting upon these outer (perceptual) and inner aspects of an experience enables insights into the relationship between the two. Ultimately, just as contemplative teaching dissolves the separation between teacher and student, contemplative observation can dissolve the separation between the birder and the bird.

Contemplative practice is about “opening what is closed, balancing what is reactive, and exploring and investigating what is hidden. To open, to balance, and to explore" (Goldstein & Kornfield, 1987, p. 15).

For example, when we are engaged in thought, our senses close much of the world out. We don’t pay close attention to our direct experiences -- to sight and sound, to smell and taste, to the sensations in our own bodies. When our senses are open to both our external and internal landscapes, we are able to go from the level of concepts -- naming -- to the level of direct observation, to what is really happening.
This is one of the great rewards of birding: In searching for birds, you end up hearing, seeing, smelling a great deal more (Sengupta, 2011).
Thinking also tends to be reactive: we see or hear and immediately like or dislike. We can achieve some balance between these poles of judging by being aware without making choices. Awareness without choice isn’t hard. It’s just noticing.

Just notice.

Through being open and just noticing, we begin to see things that are otherwise hidden beneath the concepts we normally use to know about our world. Our concepts, our names for things, can limit what we see. They freeze experience into discreet, static events, even though the truth about the world around us is that nothing is static. It’s all constant flux and flow. It’s all process. We can begin to see, hear, and explore that process if we slow down enough to notice it.

Without the rigidity of concepts, the world becomes transparent and illuminated, as though lit from within. … [T]he interconnectedness of all that lives becomes very clear. We see that nothing is stagnant and nothing is fully separate, that who we are, what we are, is intimately woven into the nature of life itself (Salzberg, 2011, p. 112).

The only tools one needs to notice are eyes and ears and the other senses and all of the brain: the part that analyzes and synthesizes, and the part that sees and hears wordlessly. I didn’t know that my brain had such a part until I read the book, Stroke of Insight, by Jill Taylor (2006). Taylor, a neuroscientist, experienced a stroke that incapacitated the part of her brain that controls language, logic and math, among other things. The stroke left her capable of seeing the world, experiencing all phenomena including herself wordlessly, without commentary, without conceptual overlay – direct perception. She so valued the insight this gave her into the nature of existence that she fought for nearly a decade to reclaim her language and linear thinking skills so she could share with us what she learned. Reading her story assured me that I could see directly too, and I didn’t need to have a stroke to do it! It’s our birthright because we have a human brain.

Contemplative observation encourages us to be curious about our own essential physical character. Paying attention to our body’s sensations is an integral part of the observation. It facilitates direct perception. Brown recommends that we begin each observation with a quick check-in with the body. How are we feeling?

Directly noticing our physical experience is a non-conceptual, or pre-conceptual experience. We could simply gaze upon our inner landscape, as if we were sitting in nature and taking in the whole scene without commentary. Of course, thoughts arise; but that’s no problem, because we notice and know how to work with them. The point is that direct perception is a source of knowledge. Thoughts are another source (Brown, 2012, p. 9).

At the end of a practice session, after observation and reflection, a few moments spent reflecting on the reflection can reveal a lot about how the observer perceives and processes her environment (Ibid., p. 6).

Cardinal observation CC*BY Georgia Harper
October 14, 2012
Sitting in the garden, on the rocks that border what used to be the rose garden. It just stopped raining, the sun came out, and there are drops of water hanging like little lights all over the trees.

Perceptions: I notice a Cardinal on the upper bar of the sling chair. He faces first one way, then another. Fairly still, looking up and down. He flies to the nearby Mountain Laurel and begins to jump from branch to branch, always flicking his tail a time a two between each move. He gradually gets deeper into the foliage and I lose sight of him. Ne never sings or calls.

Thoughts: Is that the Tanager? No, it's the Cardinal. The Tanager is gone for the season. He's sort of still for a Cardinal. Oh, there's the tail flick. He's being awfully quiet. Nice view. Oh, there he goes, into the tree. Can barely see him now. I think he's moving carefully through the branches, not the kind of quick flickering of a smaller bird.

Feelings: Surprise to notice him suddenly. I didn't see him fly to the chair. I am happy to be out here. What a treat. I feel lucky. Relaxed, alert, no strain, no tension anywhere.

Suddenly there bright red
Back, forth, up, down
This way, that way, zig-zagging out of sight
(Personal journal entry, October 14, 2012).

After practicing contemplative observation for a while, we might notice becoming mindfully aware more generally (Brown, 2012, p. 8), watching everything, including everyone, the same way we practice watching birds or our students or ourselves as we teach. That’s the idea!

Contemplative observation facilitates wordless knowing of what’s out there and what’s inside. My own experience as a student at Naropa showed me how central it is to nurturing a contemplative approach to life in general. Teaching Birding with Buddha allowed me to explore that as a teacher.


Brown, R. C. (2012). Observing learning communities. Unpublished lecture for online course EDU635e Contemplative Teaching, Boulder, Colorado: Naropa University.
Goldstein, J., & Kornfield, J. (1987). Seeking the heart of wisdom: The path of insight meditation. Boston & London: Shambhala.
Salzberg, S. (2011). Lovingkindness: The revolutionary art of happiness. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications.
Sengupta, S. (2011, January 14). India through a birder’s eye. New York Times. New York, NY. Retrieved from
Taylor, J. B. (2006). My stroke of insight: A brain scientist’s personal journey.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Contemplative teaching

Green Heron CC*BY Anita Ritenour

Wading in

September 14, 2011
Ebbens’ (1996) comprehensive look at contemplative teaching is a bit overwhelming. … Will I be able to hold all these things together if this is what it takes to be contemplative? I feel a weight in my chest, suggesting that the answer is, “it would take a miracle.” … But, with the big picture in mind, there’s nothing else to do but take a deep breath and simply be fully present in this moment (Kessler, 2000, p. 22). I meditate daily. I remind myself moment-to-moment to stay open, to accept situations as they are, let things speak for themselves, see the facts and register them precisely, and not ignore the unpleasant aspects of what I see and feel (Ebbens, 1996, p. 3). I hope I’ve got it right -- this is the basic path of contemplative education. For the moment I just need to focus on the moment. At least that seems doable (Harper, 2011a, p. 2).
Looking back on that first fall semester of the Naropa Contemplative Education Master’s Program, I see that I had very little understanding of contemplative teaching. I was flailing around, drowning in the sea of all that I had learned over the summer semester, the “Summer Intensive” as it’s aptly described, grasping for the little rafts where I knew I could rest, like returning to the present moment. But about halfway through that semester, I began to get it. It really wasn’t so complicated as it seemed at first. It came down to being off the cushion more like I was on it. Simple enough!
November 7, 2011
Brown’s article, Taming our Emotions, contained in the collection of essays, Nurturing our Wholeness (Miller & Nakagawa, 2005, p. 3) … defined contemplative education in a way I could live with now, rather than imagine striving towards someday. “Rinpoche suggested that we should manifest the effects of our practice of meditation in our everyday teaching. This he called ‘contemplative education,’ …” (2005, p. 4).

As our readings unfolded and built upon each other over these six weeks, I found the emphasis on speech and silence, slowing down of experience to see the five skandhas, and befriending … impatience, to be intimately related and integral to my ability to manifest the effects of meditation practice in the classroom, that is, to teach contemplatively (Harper, 2011c, p. 1).

Ah, yes. I had read this exact thing on the program Website when I first visited to learn about contemplative education. As the semester continued, I ‘remembered’ more and more of what I had once known, but forgotten:
October 12, 2011
“The most important thing any teacher has to learn, not to be learned in any school of education I ever heard of, can be expressed in seven words: Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners” (Holt, 1984, p. 10). This seems to have become a part of who I am as a [student]. I believe learning is personal, it’s active, and it flourishes without outside direction (Harper, 2011b, p. 1).

By spring, 2012, I could put into everyday practice a few of the things we were learning. Faculty at the University of Texas invite me to give lectures on copyright for their students and these really began to change when I tried integrating contemplative practices.

May 5, 2012

“…giving students a voice that is heard and to do it in such a way that the dialog continues” (Palmer, 1997, p. 120 cited in Brown, 2012a, p. 2) … is easy to do. I quickly found that if I began my lectures by inviting the participants to ask questions right then, the lectures gradually disappeared! No kidding! After only a month of inviting questions at the start, my lectures went from about 30 minutes … to 0 minutes. The entire hour was taken up with discussion around student questions. Further, the topics I would have covered in the lecture were still, for the most part, covered, but in the context of factual settings intrinsically of interest to the students. This change facilitated an accommodation to another of Palmer’s suggestions – that we can reduce what we teach to the essentials: “Palmer writes about a fundamental challenge in our attempts to integrate contemplative practice into content-driven education: lack of space (time)” (Ibid., p. 7).

Turning over the role for directing the interaction to the students had other benefits as well: “By expanding beyond ourselves we can draw upon the energy of the subject, which is experienced as alive” (Ibid., p. 9). And we can draw upon the energy of our community:

[P]racticing being present and extending loving-kindness to myself and others, polished a lens through which I could see how my role as instructor was changing, and how that changed the entire experience of a community of learners. … Inviting the energy of the audience, as integral to the experience, creates a joyful exchange from which we all leave more energized than when we came together (Harper, 2012a, p. 4).

(Harper, 2012b, p. 3).

Really knowing

But it was the fall, 2012 when the light came on for me, around something the Twelfth Tai Situpa (1992) said in Relative World Ultimate Mind: One can teach “in an ordinary way, but … also … through mind transmission.” And what was this ‘mind transmission?’
It is a form of learning that emanates almost completely from a person’s presence. … I learned from his eyes, from his gestures, from moments when he simply put his hand on my head and gave me a blessing. Because I was his student, it was his duty and his "goal" (so to speak) to see that some of what he had to teach me went deep enough to change me, to … eventually travel from him to live in me. It is an extraordinary level of education, teaching and learning. … To my mind this is the very heart of education -- what we are learning has changed us, now lives in us, and we are able to gift others with it – to ‘transmit’ it (Michele Blumberg, Threaded Discussion, Transforming Curriculum and Instruction, Oct. 30, 2012).

This sounded very familiar to me as a student in Naropa’s Contemplative Education program. Through their words, gestures and actions, and through the very structure and content of our course of study, our instructors were demonstrating this kind of teaching, although I have never heard them call it that. And to be fair, I am probably missing something really important here. But this is what it sounded like to me.
If this were true (or even remotely plausible), then perhaps it was time for me to stop thinking of myself as teaching copyright or even my other interest, Birding with Buddha, or any other subject, and start thinking of myself as teaching contemplatively. There was only one way to find out if the things I was learning were changing me, living in me, making me able to give them to others. I needed to see if I too could share contemplatively on any subject, any subject at all.

It is simple, really. At that point I had my own understanding of contemplative teaching. This is what I knew it to be because this is how I had experienced my contemplative teachers.

1. Contemplative teaching is constant mindfulness that we are all Buddhas, that we are all perfect ultimately. This is Situpa’s basic teaching: because the relative world fully coexists with ultimate mind, one can journey from relative imperfection towards ultimate perfection (1992, p. 134). My contemplative teachers were always mindful of this truth, graciously accepting and giving space to whatever the students said. I admired this trait, having experienced how it feels in that warm and accepting environment to contemplate contributing, and to speak without the catch in the throat that awaits judgment. But, I admit that until recently I despaired of ever embodying it myself because it’s so hard to stop the judging mind. Thankfully, another of our instructors, Kelly Petrie, shared a simple tool for cultivating it. It comes down to just noticing, which is no surprise:

I have found the act of facilitating to be a practice in mindfulness all by itself (a contemplative observation of myself you could say). It is an opportunity to compassionately notice my personal expectations and any judgments that arise in myself in response to what is offered. This awareness has allowed me to open to whatever arises and to accept the offerings with clarity and compassion (Threaded Discussion, Transforming Curriculum and Instruction, Nov. 28, 2012).

2. As Michele Blumberg described above, presence is the most salient aspect of being that contemplative teachers manifest in everything they teach. And as Situpa inspires us, “[b]y refining our words, our gestures, our actions – all of the ways that we shape our environment and the atmosphere in which we live – we can develop impeccable performance in our lives” (Ibid., p. 94). Impeccable performance is … presence.

3. And I could never over-emphasize the importance and power of the awareness of space. Lee Worley's pausing between each word emphasizing the space between them is an unforgettable reminder of the value of stopping for a moment, breathing space into whatever I am experiencing, and feeling it change, inevitably. Awareness of the spaciousness inherent in every situation gives me the capacity to find the wisdom in difficult emotional states, of which I have an unending supply.

4. There never really is a reason to hurry to get anywhere. “Not everything can be done at once” (Ibid., p. 134). Contemplative teaching allows me to take all things at a slow, measured pace, with no hint of concern about what we don't yet know. I can celebrate every little step taken.

5. Contemplative teaching integrates experience with intellect, non-conceptual learning with conceptual learning. This facilitates knowing at the deepest levels, wisdom, prajna (Harper, 2012c, pp. 1–4).

Prajna was difficult to grasp initially, but I came to understand it because I experienced that special, deep kind of knowing through the systematic combination of experience with intellectual exploration. Again and again our instructors complemented readings with contemplative exercises that deepened and broadened our experience of the ideas we read about and discussed.

Slowing down enough to learn from my own experience was the thread I explored as a student at Naropa. Now it seemed time to start exploring it as a teacher. I planned a study of contemplative birding around a series of experiential exercises. But even as the day approached when I would lead the first class, I still deeply doubted that I could bring contemplative qualities to the experience.

Then, miraculously, Aurobindo Ghose took over everything, waved a magic wand, and removed that doubt. Just before my first class, I picked up one of the books we were reading that week, The Common Vision, by David Marshak (1997), to cover a few pages. Right away I came upon this about Ghose's idea of integral education: "The psychic being ... is a powerful inner teacher. … The child's psychic being can be apprehended by the teacher through her own psychic being. … [T]he expression of the child's developmental urge … is the direct manifestation of the psychic being" (Ibid., p. 91). The desire to learn is an expression of our deepest being.

And this, where Marshak directly quotes Ghose, struck me just as profoundly: "'The first principle of true teaching is that nothing can be taught'" (Ibid., p. 92). Ah, yes. John Holt told me the same thing. I read this a long time ago, didn’t I?

No matter. As I continued to read, these two ideas stayed with me this time -- psychic connection, and nothing to teach. They stayed with me all through my first class where, not surprisingly, they affected my teaching experience. They stayed with me the rest of the afternoon, in the back of my mind, but they stunned me with their power at the Broken Spoke, one of Austin's best country-western dance halls.

I experienced nothing short of magic there: I simply lacked a sense of judging. Normally, I’m challenged by country-western dancing. I’m not that good at it and it seems that I struggle to learn new steps, and to coordinate with my partner. It combines a teaching and learning challenge. But that night I saw everyone and every event -- every dance and every 'sitting one out,' the old familiar songs, the new songs, the feeling of thirst, the feeling of exhilaration, the smoothness of the dance floor, the shuffling of my boots across it, the feel of my partner’s hand on my back, my own hand on his shoulder, the crowded dance floor, the swaying of the rhythm of the dance, everything – as just what it was. I could not immediately account for this lack of judging. I didn't like or not like anything, including my own or other dancer’s dancing! I didn’t think about the dance. I connected with every person there in a way I never have before. The magical aspect of this change in perspective was that it was effortless. Judging was just gone, like smoke on a fresh breeze. The whole thing was just so odd.

Later, as I thought about it, I recalled that Welwood (2000) had described something like this in one of my favorite of his pieces, Dialectic of Awakening:

When someone opens completely to what they are experiencing, the personality -- which is an activity of judgment, control, and resistance -- disappears for a moment (Welwood, 2000, p. 103).

The ultimate practice here is learning to remain fully present and awake in the middle of whatever thoughts, feelings, perceptions, or sensations are occurring and to appreciate them ... as Dharmakaya -- as an ornamental display of the empty, luminous essence of awareness. They are the radiant clarity of awareness in action (Ibid., p. 106).

Fully present and awake. But I think there was something more. There was a pervasive sense of spaciousness. The Aurobindo Ghose passages had breathed some space into and around the ideas I had about teaching and learning. Suddenly the space of what a teacher is and what a teacher does just opened up. “Nothing can be taught.” The dance hall experience of effortless awareness and connection, of direct experience, let me feel what it was like to simply enjoy dancing, as I dance at this time. Just that. The sense of connection was much more valuable than any lesson I could give or take from analyzing the steps. That experience also let me see very clearly that the study I had in mind for Birding with Buddha assumed a level of separation between my students and me that now felt inimical to contemplative teaching as well as contrary to my own direct experience of reality. It seems I thought I would "teach" the contemplative practice and evaluate how well students learned it, whether they experienced what I experienced, and whether the book I had written effectively instructed them in the practice.

All that simply fell away. Yes, I had written a book about contemplative birding; maybe I could improve it; I could affect the environment for the classes by arranging them to facilitate the interests we all shared; I could affect the experience by being present and relating to each person from my heart, from psychic being to psychic being as Ghose would have put it; I could model the practice that I wanted to encourage; but I would not teach them anything (Marshak, 1997, pp. 92–94).

So even worse than at the last minute, actually after the classes began, I became fully committed to teaching contemplatively because I knew I could do it. I felt so many things shift on the dance floor, and saw for myself the truth of the ideas we had studied. I experienced that I was ready. 



Brown, R. C. (2012). Creating learning communities: Reflections on Parker Palmer’s work. Unpublished lecture for online course EDU635e Contemplative Teaching, Boulder, CO: Naropa University.

Ebbens, S. (1996, August). Contemplative teaching. General Pedagogical Studycentre, Utrecht.

Harper, G. (2011a, September 14). Contemplative education? What’s that? Unpublished paper for online course EDU EDU 635e Contemplative Teaching, Boulder, CO: Naropa University.

Harper, G. (2011b, October 12). Role of the teacher. Unpublished paper for online course EDU 615e Perspectives in Sacred Learning, Boulder, CO: Naropa University.

Harper, G. (2011c, November 7). Silence and noticing. Unpublished paper for online course EDU EDU 635e Contemplative Teaching, Boulder, CO: Naropa University.

Harper, G. (2012a, March 27). Teaching outside the cocoon. Unpublished paper for online course EDU EDU 635e Contemplative Teaching, Boulder, CO: Naropa University.

Harper, G. (2012b, May 5). Presence builds community. Unpublished paper for online course EDU 735 Transforming Instruction and Curriculum, Boulder, CO: Naropa University.

Harper, G. (2012c, December 12). Embodying wisdom: The Buddha, the Twelfth Tai Situpa, you and me. Unpublished paper for online course EDU 735 Transforming Instruction and Curriculum, Boulder, CO: Naropa University.

Holt, J. (1984). Teaching is no mystery. Growing without schooling, 40, 10. Retrieved from

Kessler, R. (2000). The teaching presence. Virginia Journal of Education, 94(2). Retrieved from

Marshak, D. (1997). The common vision. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

Miller, J., & Nakagawa, Y. (2005). Nurturing our wholeness: Perspectives on spirituality in education (Cdr.). Brandon, Vermont: Holistic Education Press.

Palmer, P. J. (1997). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life (1st ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Situpa, T. T. (1992). Relative world ultimate mind (1st ed.). Boston & London: Shambhala.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Birding with Buddha

Buddha with bird, CC*BY Ekke

Contemplating Nature

I finished Birding with Buddha this month. It is designed to accompany the course I taught this spring, and it's not really meant to stand alone, but see notes below to acquire a free copy.

It was a modest undertaking and yet it has taken me awhile. I taught it first as a course, Zen Birding, in 2011, and again this spring, as Birding with Buddha, my research project for a Master's Degree in Contemplative Education from Naropa University. I refined it a lot over the last three years, partly as a result of the things I learned teaching it. But I read so many wonderful articles and books over the course of my studies at Naropa that I knew would enrich the text immeasurably, that it's a very good thing that I was able to make it my research project and stretch out the time to sit with it, so to speak. I know it is better for the time I've spent at Naropa.

Now what?

I really don't know. That's supposed to be a good thing. It is what it is.

If you would like a copy of Birding with Buddha

Birding with Buddha is available in the iBookstore, or you can download it here. I wrote the book in iBooks Author, so it is formatted for the iBooks reader. If you visit this page and press and hold the link in Safari on your iPad or other device with iBooks reader installed, Safari should give you the option to open the file with iBooks. But if you access the link from your computer, whether Mac or PC, just download it and either sync it to your iPad iBooks reader or email it to yourself and open the attachment on the iPad with iBooks. Best of luck!

A pdf is available too, even though it is not so good an alternative. The sounds in Chapter 3 do not play in the pdf format. I would suggest that the reader listen to any bird sounds in place of the recordings -- whatever is chirping outside your window.