Contemplative Practices in Higher Education by Hannah Gorman

Colleges are finding contemplative practices useful for their students. For example, University of Mary Washington started an Annual Mindfulness Week in 2013 for students, faculty and staff. Hannah is now sharing her experience from one of her courses where her professor applied mindfulness in his delivery.

This week I had the great pleasure of speaking with Professor Daniel Barbezat, a professor of economics at Amherst College, about the role of contemplative practices in higher education. This is the topic of his most recent book: Contemplative Practices in Higher Education: Powerful Methods to Transform Teaching and Learning.

I began by asking Professor Barbezat about the goals of groups such as the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education and the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. Contemplative and mindfulness practices exist in countless forms, so I was interested in how these practices might factor into education in particular. Professor Barbezat described contemplative practices as “introspective, reflective practices that stimulate a first-person inquiry.” Whether it be learning a skill in preparation for future employment, or simply enhancing our knowledge, we educate ourselves with a certain end-goal in mind. The benefit of contemplation is that it allows for examination of what that end may be.

Routinely, Professor Barbezat talks about contemplative practices at the beginning of his courses, and throughout the semester he incorporates them directly into his teaching style. He was quick to provide an example of this technique. He asked me to imagine that I am given five dollars. At first I am very happy, until I realize that everyone around me has been given ten dollars, and my pleasure is diminished. A benefit to someone else, in this instance, is a relative disappointment to me.

Professor Barbezat explained that his goal in using this example was to show that we could either feel rivalrous or generous: a benefit to someone else can either diminish our own benefits, or it can amplify them.

When the students themselves contemplate how they might experience that situation, they realize that their happiness and satisfaction is constructed and influenced by the happiness and satisfaction of others around them. This exercise is useful because students begin to contemplate this construction, asking questions such as:

  • How is my happiness constructed?
  • How does the happiness of others influence my own happiness?
  • To whom do I compare myself?

These questions prompt them to reflect more deeply on the material they are learning. It is precisely this sort of first-person inquiry that Professor Barbezat strives to spark by using contemplative practices in the classroom.

Another area of education in which contemplative practices can be very useful is awareness and attention to detail. When a person walks into a room, he or she has limited awareness. When I entered Professor Barbezat’s office, I did not read the title of every book on his shelves, or notice the view from his window. I focused directly on my most immediate task: the interview I was about to conduct. In the process, I may have missed out on potentially critical information contained in my surroundings.

Deeper contemplation allows us to begin noticing what we might have otherwise missed. It prompts further personal inquiry. How am I going to allocate my awareness? Which things in my surroundings will stand out to me? Taking an active role in becoming aware of our surroundings helps us focus our attention on the present, and observe details that we normally would have missed.

The role of the teacher, according to Professor Barbezat, is to open up this line of questioning in the first place. The students will be able to focus their attention more on the things they consider important, and thereby gain more meaning and purpose from their education.