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.