Radical Pedagogy


Radical Pedagogy (2014)                                                                                                                                                             Volume 11 Number 2                                                                                                                                                                    ISSN: 1524-6345

Awakening to Lifelong Learning: Contemplative Pedagogy as Compassionate Engagement

Kristen C. Blinne

Department of Communication Arts

SUNY College at Oneonta, USA

Email: weaveproject@yahoo.com


Employing performative writing, this essay asks the reader to consider the role contemplative practices could play in both teaching and learning. By building bridges to connect critical and contemplative pedagogy, I situate teaching not only as a practice of compassionate engagement, but also as an opportunity to embrace and practice mettacommunication.

Keywords: Contemplative pedagogy, mindfulness, compassion, communication, metta

To engage fully in the spirit of this essay and hoping to enhance your reading experience, I humbly invite you to take several moments to try mindful breathing, perhaps watching Thich Nhat Hanh, featured in the short video “Peace is the Way,” as an opportunity to focus your intention.  Next, find a comfortable sitting position, lengthen your spine, softly focus your eyes on an object in front of you, and then concentrate your attention on your breath. Both inhale and then exhale through your nose. You might wish to include a verbal marker with each breath, such as, “breathing in, breathing out” or “rising, falling,” paying close attention to any thoughts, emotions, or sensations that arise. Acknowledge these and return your focus to your breath. Take a minute or two for this activity and upon completion, consider:

Were you able to focus solely on your breath? What, if any, distractions challenged your attention? How long were you able to engage in this activity? Contemplating your experience further, what benefits, if any, might arise from incorporating contemplative practices such as mindful breathing into your daily life? In a broader context - what does mindfulness mean to you? Moreover, how relevant might it be for you as a teacher/learner to incorporate contemplative practices into your teaching or research? My intention is to contemplate these questions and hopefully inspire you to awaken to lifelong learning through contemplative pedagogy. Defined broadly, contemplative pedagogy, from my experience, speaks to any teaching or learning moment that develops and expands relational awareness via self-inquiry, resulting from heightened present-moment attention and compassionate engagement with oneself and the world.

In this essay, I write as a method of inquiry (Richardson, 2000), employing performative writing (Pelias, 2011; Coylar, 2009) as a practice to highlight this process. In doing so, writing is itself a contemplative practice, which I believe can and does change the world as it constructs worlds. With this practice, you will notice that I lean (Pelias, 2011) heavily on the words of others, frequently eschewing the academic convention of paraphrasing to create a more polyvocal text, recognizing that the personal is always political, and the political and performative are often pedagogical. I see my teaching as a performance but I also see performatively writing about teaching as a way to contemplate, challenge, and breathe life into and hopefully inspire new realities for myself and others. Thus, this performative text also serves as my teaching manifesto as well as a call for contemplative pedagogy.

While my focus in this paper is higher education, I contend that contemplative pedagogy is equally valuable in K-12 settings. Further, any class can incorporate contemplative pedagogy into the curriculum, and professors from a wide range of varying disciplines, such as art,   communication, dance, economics, education, composition, environmental studies, nursing, philosophy, psychology, religion, and social work, among many others, are already doing so (Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, n.d.). By embracing contemplative pedagogies within my classroom, I have found that students feel inspired to question their learning process and all of the components of being together as a learning community, knowing they can cultivate their presence and engage in self-learning while also learning to listen, dealing with everyday stresses, and creating a deeper sense of belonging if they care enough and have enough compassion for each other to do so.

For me, this creates an opportunity to teach, learn, and practice mettacommunication, a contemplative practice, which I describe as an emergent process wherein we learn to acknowledge and take responsibility for our interactions with others by recognizing our shared vulnerability (Blinne, 2014). To illustrate this mindfulness-in-process, I invite you to move with me through one day as I tune in and out of the present moment, hopefully inspiring a kind of “withness-thinking” (Shotter, 2011) about the space between you and me – this essay – and our interconnected lives.

Early Morning…

Scanning the flyers haphazardly posted on the cluttered wall, my eyes zero in on the words – Awakening to Life. At the same time I am staring at these words, questions are constantly intruding into my awareness: Did I turn off the stove before leaving the house? Where did I put that book? Do I have a meeting later? I am frequently stressed due to my long work hours, lack of sleep, and sometimes unbalanced eating habits, and adding no-time-to-exercise to this list, I feel scattered a great percentage of the time. Warren (2011) comforts me, advising:

It is easy to become bogged down with expectation, requirement, work load, and other factors that will feel like weights on our spirit; however, these ‘facts’ are stories, that when told, can hide the joy of our jobs. Looking back at my career so far, I think about how much time I wasted talking about how burdened I was. And although I have been busy and stressed, I have recently become committed to look for the joy, the wonder, and the true generosity my job enables me to experience (p. 142).

Resonating with his experience, I also often feel burdened by the many tasks and hours required to complete the work an academic life demands. I want to embrace Gibran’s (1973) words from his poem, “On Work,” that - “work is love made visible.” I want my work to be more than a job, career, or calling (Bochner, 2009). Instead, I want it to be a joyful effort or commitment (Hartnett, 2011) or even better “…love made visible.”

Rushing through each day, I phone, text, email, work, eat, and try to find spaces to rest and sleep. In this chaos, it is easy to go into an “autopilot” mode, tuning in and out of my surroundings, never fully present in the moment, multitasking as I go. I am doing this again. Returning to the words before me, I continue reading the Awakening to Life brochure,

When talking with a friend, cooking for family, participating in a meeting at work, or simply driving in traffic, are we really "here," focused on this moment and experience? Do we eat, shop, and otherwise consume in a mindful and healthy manner? Practicing mindfulness will help us to "show up" for life, make deliberate and healthy choices, and more fully enjoy the rich experience of the present moment. 

Have I not been showing up for life? Am I not awake to all that life has offered me –now? Going over my ever-growing school-related “things to do list” has made me realize again how easy it is to become unfocused in my day-to-day activities. In front of the cluttered wall, Haight’s (2010) words taunt me, “It could be said that the only activity one’s attention is not on is the actual activity in which one is engaged” (p. 32). I know, I know, here I am again wandering away from the moment. Standing quietly, I contemplate this idea. Minutes pass. My watch blinks: 4:50 p.m. Shit. If I do not hurry, I will be late. Sprinting across campus, I find myself quantifying my semester… feedback on 900 pages of student work… 120 hours of class…

My shoe becomes untied as my bag slides off my shoulder, I hop while I attempt to retie the laces. Sweat pools on my forehead and back. Wait. Stop. Breathe. Take a moment. I tie my shoe and reposition my bag. Go. Breathing in as I step, breathing out as I step, the calculation continues…answered at least 1000 emails. Catching myself holding my breath again, I arrive at my classroom on time. Barely.

Office Hours…

I sit at my desk contemplating my teaching philosophy. Journaling, I scribble the words, “contemplative pedagogy” in my notebook, which reminds me that I am always committed to transgressing teaching-learning boundaries so I can respond to student/learners as unique beings, active participants in the learning process, employing a holistic approach to learning, emphasizing well-being, action, and reflection. As such, I seek to address social problems by situating teaching as compassionate engagement via mindfulness-in-action through nonviolent communication (Rosenberg, 2003; Hanson Lasater & Lasater 2009), recognizing that I cannot compassionately engage with others without mindfully attending to my own healing and suffering.  Writing these names - Bernie Glassman, Norman Denzin, Fran Grace, Nina Asher, Leela Fernandes, Martin Luther King, Jr… - I begin a mindfulness map.

I love you, Bernie Glassman (2011), of the Zen Peacemakers, for showing me through your actions and words that I can be a better teacher if I give up fixed ideas about myself, others, and the universe when possible. Challenging, yes. Worth pursuing, yes. You also model wisdom and compassion when you bear witness to the joy and suffering of others, giving me the courage to do the same for myself and the world around me. Each day a new lesson. By engaging in loving actions, like you, I teach from the heart, which I feel is the best and only place from which to start inspiring others’ desires to awaken to lifelong learning. Each day a new lesson plan.

Closing my eyes and taking a deep breath: Norman, I stand with you, wanting to change the world (Denzin, 2010). I can no longer stand idly by and watch, wait, and feel paralyzed by the inequality and ever-present cruelty surrounding me. It is all too easy to adapt and become victims of a pathological system that teaches us to embrace the status quo while killing our creativity and punishing us for questioning power structures. I need a new map to story the trajectory of my teaching and learning life. I accept that I am, in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s terms “creatively maladjusted” because to be well-adjusted to a system that sustains violence, intolerance, and injustice is just sick (Chase, 2007, p. 3).

My heart yearns for both personal and social transformation.  Following in the footsteps of Nhat Hanh (1999; 2006), I walk forward knowing that peace is the way, contemplation is the path, and compassionate engagement is the journey. Others (Campbell & Kryszewska, 1992; Shor, 1996; Freire, 1998; Moreno-Lopez, 2005; Fassett & Warren, 2007; Danielewicz & Elbow, 2009; Denzin, 2009, 2010) guide me as well, reminding me, "Such mindful engagement with one's world implies that both political activism against and intellectual critique of oppressive forces and structures are necessary for transformation" (Asher, 2003, p. 238). On my journey, I carry with me a politics of possibility and hope (Denzin, 2010) in an often unjust world (Plummer, 2005), never forgetting it “is not about a goal, an outcome, or even effort. It is about being alive to the lifelong path of self-evolution- thereby becoming a beneficial presence in the world, to all beings. Isn’t that what any effective pedagogy aims to do?” (Grace, 2011, p. 118). I want to be a beneficial presence in the world. Being a teacher brings me closer to this path although I have often struggled to bring my activist commitments in conversation with my spiritual practice within my classes.

Grace (2011) helps me to see these intersections more clearly so I can make this possible by explaining that social justice, liberatory, or critical pedagogy practices are “second-person pedagogies,” which emerge from dialogue, multiple contents, and understanding the intersections of race, class, gender, and so on, so students can become agents of change in the world. While these approaches can help revolutionize students’ thinking about the importance of humanity, ultimately, she warns, it is important to build a bridge between “second-person” pedagogies and “first-person, contemplative-based” pedagogies to cultivate a sustainable humanity that does not dismiss self-knowledge like “third-person pedagogies” following a banking or container model of imprinting knowledge on blank canvases.

Building a bridge between these ways of being in the world is crucial to helping learners and the teachers who teach them, while learning from them to become more attuned to a variety of social realties, hopefully encouraging all parties to become more aware of what they value and how they think, communicate, feel, and act in their everyday lives. Building on this, contemplative pedagogy and mindfulness practices create opportunities to question the tension between ideas of individualism and interdependence, reminding me there is a world outside of my own self-centeredness, and it is important to be aware of the impact I make in my own life as well as the lives of others. To become aware of this is to learn to think critically about the present moment by countering the mindlessness,  resulting from engaging uncritically or moving through one’s day or life on “autopilot” (Langer, 1989, p. 79).

Asher (2003) enters my thoughts because she, too, has been inspired by the words of Nhat Hanh, advocating for a pedagogy of interbeing, also discussing the importance of self-knowledge, stating, “It is only by looking deeply into one’s ‘self’ that one can see the ‘other’ and recognize how one’s own past, present, and future are linked to those of different others and vice versa” (p. 238). This thinking captures the type of compassionate engagement I strive to actualize in my teaching. I make no claim that compassionate engagement is an everyday teaching occurrence nor that it is more than a utopian ideal at best; however, it one in which I attempt to remember each class session as an everyday peacemaking practice, reminding me to recognize my shared humanity with others by considering how we each suffer, love, live, and die together as interdependent individuals living in a collective world. Together we share the power to shape and change our interwoven realities.

To fully articulate my ideas about teaching as compassionate engagement, I need Leela Fernandes’ (2003) help as she has also inspired my commitment to compassionate engagement and the "possibilities of spiritualized social transformation of this world, one that seeks to challenge all forms of injustice, hierarchy and abuse from the most intimate daily practices in our lives to the larger structures of race, gender, class, sexuality, and nation" (p. 11). In advocating for a spiritual approach to teaching, via compassionate engagement, I am not asserting any specific spiritual or religious beliefs; rather, I am trying to model a stance that encourages recognition of our interbeing or interconnectedness through nonviolent communication and action. To embrace interbeing is to come to understand our radical relatedness. Thus, when we are:

overflowing with understanding and compassion, we can appreciate the wonders of life, and, at the same time, act with the firm resolve to alleviate suffering. Too many people distinguish between the inner world of the mind and the world outside, but the worlds are not separate. They belong to the same reality (Nhat Hanh, 1998, p. 4).

To do so, I know I must surrender to the "dailiness of practices" (Fernandes, 2003) because I cannot expect change in my activist projects or in my teaching if I do not incorporate these goals and practices within my daily life.

To situate teaching as compassionate engagement is to acknowledge the spiritual potential  of  compassion, harmony, tolerance, transcendence, and mindfulness with a deeply rooted concern for others via interactions that first seek to do no harm and then attempt to tend to the suffering of others, linking daily activities of one's personal life with activism and service. In other words, personal and social transformation have become inseparable for me. Teaching then becomes a type of "compassion organizing" (Dutton et al., 2006; Frost, 1999), attending to the suffering of others (including, noticing or attending to another, imagining or feeling empathetic concern, and acting to ease suffering); coordinating organizational resources for compassionate action; and finally, engaging or organizing collective action to end suffering. I suffer, and in suffering, seek to understand the suffering of others, while seeking spaces of healing. How else can we love and support each other?

When I reflect on the damage that boundaries and dualities create, such as theory and method, theory and practice, research and teaching, self and other (teacher-student), black and white, rich and poor, women and men, intelligent and unintelligent, powerful and powerless, I can better see how these binaries do a huge disservice to the transformative potential of living, loving, acting, and learning both within the academy and outside its walls. I believe teaching, as compassionate engagement, is a practice that calls for educators to discontinue this dichotomous thinking or risk severely limiting the potential of lifelong learning collaborations. To be pedagogically adjusted to these splits is pathological to developing new educational paradigms. Simply put: We need more creatively maladjusted teachers in the world, right?

Late Afternoon…

Sitting in the meditation hall with thirty or so other participants, I attempt to relax my body and clear my mind. The teacher begins:

The class is intended for those new to the practice of mindfulness, as well as those seeking to establish a more consistent daily mindfulness practice. Each class will focus on experiencing the basic practices for establishing mindfulness, while leaving time for discussion and sharing. Participants will experience sitting and walking meditation, mindful movements, deep relaxation, loving kindness meditation, and practicing mindfulness in everyday life. 

Hoping to be create more time for contemplation in my life, I had enthusiastically signed up for this course with the intention of reintegrating contemplative practices into my everyday routine.  Several weeks into the mindfulness course, it became apparent to me that a large percentage of the participants were also teachers. Like me, I  wondered whether they were drawn to mindfulness due to their busy schedules, frequent stress, compassion fatigue, burnout, or some other reason.

“Before we begin, I would like us to set our intention for our meditation”, the teacher continued. My thoughts are cluttered – in…tension. Surely the teacher did not just say “in tension.”  I am tense. What am I hearing? It has been another long and stressful day. “Your body is always present”, she reminds us. “It is your mind that wanders, dancing in the past, projecting to the future, and not focusing on the present.  Our intention in this moment is to let go of the stresses and worries so that we can arrive in the now and focus on our breath. She intones,

Breathing in, I know I am breathing in.

Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.

As the in-breath grows deep, the out-breath grows slow.

Breathing in makes me calm. Breathing out brings me ease.

With the in-breath, I smile. With the out-breath, I release.

Breathing in, there is only the present moment.

Breathing out, it is a wonderful moment.

Focusing on my breath, I am overwhelmed by words. Silent layers and layers of words strung together to form sentences and thoughts criss-cross above and below my breath. This paper… mindfurlness… contemplation… teaching…students… writing… learning… hungry… tired… My lower back hurts… Is my foot asleep?... How much time has passed?... I stare down at my interpersonal communication class binder positioned in front of me, which reads:

M-moment to moment attention

I-  in the here and now
N- non-judgmental attitude
D-detach from unhelpful thoughts
F-forgive and be grateful
U- unconditional acceptance
L- learn with beginner’s mind

-Zhen Phang

Trying to meditate, I realize just how difficult it is to focus my attention on a single object – my breath. Words immediately overtake my awareness. Even marking my breath with words, “breathing in, breathing out,” has no impact on my intruding thoughts. Pay attention to your breath! Breathe, breathe, breathe. Thought. What is thinking or thought if not words, relationally patterning our understanding and perception. La la la la la la la la. Stop. Quiet. Breathe. No escape.

Struggling to keep my focus on my breath, I shift my weight forward then back. Rolling my shoulders and neck, I lengthen my spine and situate my gaze on the colorful, patterned fabric near my feet. My eyes attempt soft focus, which renders the cloth a dull blur of color and texture. I blink. Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out. Blink. Blink. Blink. Shift. Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out. Blink. I close my eyes. Darkness. Muddy space. Breath. Thoughts race by like a train. I stand outside and watch them pass.

I want to be on the train. No, I want to be the train. Ding, ding. The bell calls us away from our meditation to discuss our experience. How much time has passed?  Opening my eyes, I feel calm. I am making some progress but cannot help but feel this is another failed attempt. Who knew paying attention was so difficult. I become lost in self-evaluation only to arrive back in the moment to hear the teacher quoting Kabat-Zinn (1994):

It doesn’t take long in meditation to discover that part of our mind is constantly evaluating our experiences, comparing them with other experiences or holding them up against expectations and standards that we create, often out of fear. Fear that I’m not good enough, that bad things will happen, that good things won’t last, that other people might hurt me, that I won’t get my way, that only I know anything, that I’m the only one who doesn’t know anything (p. 55).

Our teacher then asks us to partner with the person sitting next to us to share our deepest fear as a way to practice deep, compassionate listening. Fearful of this activity, I volunteer to go first. Ding, Ding. We switch. My partner talks about teaching, also. The stress. Long work hours. Her inability to do all that she wants to do. Not being able to balance work and life. Not having enough time to care for everyone. Her students with special needs. Trying to help but feeling she is failing to make a difference. Ding, Ding. We pause and stare at each other in gratitude. A moment of recognition of our shared fears feels comforting.  I was never alone.

Before Class…

What if learning is also an "act of love" (Darder, 2002) in a similar manner to how Freire describes teaching? As an act of love, I want to be mindful of my impact, desiring a more loving, conscious, and just world, which, for me,  means, "The inquirer [teacher] watches herself in the process, noticing the wake she makes as the boat moves forward or anchors for a while until a storm passes or the sun rises" (Bentz & Shapiro 1998, p. 57). Teaching, ultimately, is about being aware of the wake you make in the lives of others. This wake can be quiet and calm, encouraging stillness and reflection, but it can also be harsh and demanding, inspiring apathy and disconnection. If I could shout this from the rooftop, I would implore others that to be contemplative about our impact on others’ learning requires an understanding of metacommunication (Bateson, 2000; Nachmanovich, 2009) but also mettacommunication (Blinne, 2014). At its core, metta, a Pali word within the wisdom tradition of Buddhism, meaning loving kindness and also denoting a type of friendliness, also encourages us to be gentle and to cultivate nonviolence, and as Sharon Shalzberg (1995) suggests, metta is what binds us together so much so that:

Looking at people and communicating that they can be loved, and that they can love in return, is giving them a tremendous gift. It is also a gift to ourselves. We see that we are one with the fabric of life. This is the power of metta: to teach ourselves and our world this inherent loveliness (p. 28).

By practicing metta, I can better understand the four Buddhist practices of relating, or brahma-viharas, of which this practice is a part. The first practice involves extending our experience of friendliness, beginning with those with whom we are already in a relationship and expanding this outward to other encounters (metta). Next, we develop compassion (karuna), or the capacity to be vulnerable and suffer with others, seeing our humanity as bound together. Ultimately, this step asks us to see everyone as a reflection of some part of ourselves in order to learn to see the good in ourselves as well as in others, which is the third practice of sympathetic joy (mudita). Finally, and perhaps the most difficult of these practices, is to develop a level of detachment towards those who have harmed us or have caused us suffering via the practice of equanimity (upekkha). This practice also asks us to look at how we create our own suffering so we can come to know all of the suffering, doubt, anger, fear, or hate we have for another is also that which we doubt and fear within ourselves.

Through these practices of mettacommunication as a communicative stance in my teaching through compassionate engagement with other learners and the world, I can begin to create a learning model that models personal and social transformation via tolerance, love, benevolence, and nonviolence. I view a mettacommunicative stance as not only better illuminating radical relatedness, or interbeing, but also as helping us to embrace the vast part of ourselves that stems from learning to fall in love with ourselves either again or for the first time. Only from here can we open ourselves to love others.

In envisioning what mettacommunication looks and feels like, I hear Shepherd (2006) reminding me that communication is the “simultaneous experience of self and other,” or rather,  “a particular occasion of experience, one which happens when you experience, in all the fullness of life, yourself and someone else" (p. 22-23). He further teaches me that we build our identities together in our communicative interactions and are "always-becoming," simultaneously experiencing each other’s presence through "being-together," or rather,  our "becomingness" or "being-ness"  (p. 24-25).  Am I entering dangerous territory here? What about the always-shifting and often unequal power resources within relationships, especially in regard to race/ethnicity/nationality, class, gender, age, sexual orientation, and physical ability?

Shepherd (2006) asks me to see this as an opportunity for possibility,  the idea being that we meet each other by recognizing who we are becoming in the experience of our communication versus who we are via our intersecting identities. His words resonate deeply with my understanding of mindfulness:

perhaps another way of getting at the special nature of this simultaneity is to say that communication is the desirable (even if sometimes unhappy) experience of attending not just to me, at the ignorance of you, nor just to you, at the loss of me, but the sympathetic awareness of and attendance to both you and me in simultaneous regard (p. 25).

I see much hope and potential in these ideas for living a more democratic, interdependent life as it speaks to the pragmatic, utopian, and idealistic ways to which I aspire within my own interactions. How we communicatively inter-are cannot be taken-for-granted as it is at the core of everything related to teaching, learning, loving, and being the change we want to see in the world.

Recognizing the simultaneity of our experience has the ability to foster deeper connections as well as helping to better understand these connections through sensemaking practices (Long, 2001; Eisenberg, 2001; Goodall, 1996). Through mettacommunication, which I consider a spiritual practice, we can learn to acknowledge and take responsibility for our interactions with others and other realities. It is in this space, Shepherd (2001) tells me, that we become something more than self or other in our simultaneity – in this place we create the possibility of community (p. 33). Communication, as Goodall (1996) also reminds me, is “the spiritual pathway capable of uniting diverse communities" (p. 21). I “quest for communion” (Rodriguez, 2005) to transcend myself and strive for something more together. I believe the personal is always relational and the relational is always spiritual and the spiritual is always political and pedagogical.

By contesting the forces that seek to separate us from each other, we can unite across diverse world views, practices, experiences, and ways of being in the world (Rodriguez, 2005, 35). By seeking to practice mettacommunication, I enlarge my understanding of what is possible. Not only does this practice offer an emergent definition of communication, wherein I recognize my impact on the lives of others, but I also enhance my willingness to embrace vulnerability. In this vulnerability, I know that my humanity is bound to the humanity of others and that being vulnerable means being open to mystery, complexity, and ambiguity, thereby offering new ways of seeing and being in the world (Rodriguez, 2010). 

By teaching learners to first understand metacommunication and then by modeling mettacommunication through contemplative pedagogy, learners can better “see” how they communicate on multiple levels, how they communicate about communicating, and how their lives are connected to the interwoven tapestry that creates the social fabric of their interactions. If metacommunication refers to a type of communication which conveys something about the communicator (or about the relationship between or among communicators) and/or the communication itself, then mettacommunication adds present-moment attention to cultivate compassionate awareness that recognizes our relatedness, helping us better understand how individuals and communities can teach and learn to engage more peacefully, nonviolently, and compassionately with each other, while practicing a style of communication that helps at least one person suffer less each day. In other words, we become more compassionate, peaceful, and nonviolent communicators.  To do so means that we must become aware of the suffering we cause as well as the suffering we experience, also recognizing our positions of privilege and the many ways we act as oppressors and experience oppression. This vulnerability is, as Rodriguez (2010) so beautifully contends:

locating the cultivation of courage in our every day habits of being. Finding the courage to be vulnerable is also about finding the courage to act, to learn, to trust, to believe, to imagine, to live, to love. Through courage we recognize our humanity in each other by being unafraid – regardless of our differences – to engage each other…In allowing us to imagine, to create, to love, courage allows us to exceed reciprocity and mutuality. We love in spite of rather than because of…Thus, any model of education that cultivates no courage only reduces us to the objects of subordination, manipulation, and exploitation (p. 141).

Teaching about metta, or loving kindness via contemplative practices, illuminates the importance of relationality, especially in situations of conflict, as this concept asks us to wish for health, happiness, and nonviolence towards others. To explore this further, learners can focus on positively visualizing a person, place, or other being; reflect on the positive in a situation or person; repeat a loving, reassuring, or affirming phrase or words; or act compassionately via selfless service (Dass & Bush, 1992).

While there are many ways one can integrate mettacommunication into the classroom, I often employ the following loving kindness mantra for students to critically and contemplatively reflect and explore ideas of interdependence and relationality.  Starting with oneself:

May I be peaceful and at ease

May I be happy and well

May I be safe and free from harm

Moving outward to friends, family, and then to strangers, locations, events, or other areas one wants to send compassionate energy:

May all beings be peaceful and at ease

May all beings be happy and well

May all beings be safe and free from harm

To practice mettacommunication is to recognize how my words and actions impact others.

Class Begins…

Good evening, everyone. I hope you are well. Before we begin, do you have any questions, comments, concerns, songs, dances, shout-outs, or other comments you would like to share?

I am greeted with silence.

Moving on… how are you doing today?


A choir of sighs and several varieties of “yes” emerge.


A few hands go up. I see a fist.


No responses.


A collective wave erupts into a sea of chatter. I hear snippets of talk about jobs, kids, roommates, tests, and other stresses. I pause, waiting for the class to return their focus.

Today, our class is going to explore the role of mindfulness in interpersonal relationships. Hearing a few groans, I proceed undaunted.

Throughout the semester we have questioned “How to live a life” and “How we can have intimate citizenship in an unjust world” (Plummer, 2005, p. 6), as well as "What maximizes the possibilities for a livable life, what minimizes the possibility of unbearable life…?” (Butler, 2004, p. 8). In asking ourselves these questions, I hope we can strive to be less violent and more compassionate communicators, always questioning what happens when we begin to render other beings as invisible, silent, or unworthy of living a happy, healthy, or safe life, including non-human animals, plants, insects, and other beings. We are all interconnected, but how do we become aware of this?

Pausing, I grab the canvas grocery bag on the table and begin to hand out small, individual boxes of raisins, hearing students whisper:

Um. Raisins?

I love raisins!

Gross. This reminds me of kindergarten.

I remind them: Please try to be open to this activity. I have not even given you the directions yet, I say, smiling.  Please refrain from opening the boxes for a moment, I state, as several students work to make their boxes look closed again.

In order to better understand mindful eating (Kabat-Zinn, 2005; Nhat Hanh & Cheung, 2010), however, we must first consider what mindfulness is, right? What do you think?

A student in the front of the class blurts out, “Paying attention?”

Thank you, that’s a great start.

From the center of the room, “Being present?”

Absolutely. Both paying attention and being present are important components of mindfulness. Often we forget to breathe deeply, take breaks, and drink water. We skip meals. Let’s apply this to an everyday activity – say – washing dishes (Nhat Hanh, 1999, p. 3). I invite you to close your eyes and visualize the last time you washed a dish. Focus solely on the activity. Do not let your thoughts wander. Become aware of the dish, paying attention to the act of washing it. Focus on the moment- – the feel of the water, its pressure and temperature, the shape and texture of the dish, the smell and feeling of the soap, the experience of gripping a sponge and moving it around a plate or cup. Opening your eyes, can you think of other activities that could benefit from this type of attention? A few hands go up:


Listening to someone talk.

Brushing your teeth.

Someone whispers, “Sex.”

Great examples. What if we add complexity to our understanding of mindfulness by considering what it might mean to be contemplative or engage in contemplative practices, too? Moving to the board, I write contemplation – the “act of attending with nonjudgmental awareness or being open to things just as they are” (Brady, 2007, p. 1). Another way of saying this is that contemplative practices are exercises in meditative reflection (Repetti, 2010), focusing attention on an element of conscious experience such as meditation, breathing, visualization, relaxation, and so on.

Do any of you do yoga?

About ten students raise their hands.

What about meditation? Mindful breathing?

A few hands stay raised.

All of these practices, including mindfulness, are types of contemplative practice. When one focuses on breathing during meditation or moves from yoga posture to posture, the goal is to bring mind and body together into a state of heightened awareness (Sarath, 2003). You have likely already experienced a wide range of meditative awareness in your life: if you have ever felt a wave of electricity, energy, or tingling in your body; experienced a moment of complete stillness or silence; merged so deeply with an activity or experience that your self of sense disappeared for a moment; engaged fully without distraction with single-pointed focus or awareness of the object, person, or activity; delighted in a state between wakefulness and sleep; or experienced that which involved a sense of connection to something greater than yourself. In other words, both mindfulness and contemplation employ focused awareness; however, contemplation is generally preferred as a broader term that includes practices ranging from the creative arts to peacemaking circles. Walking around the class, I hand out a worksheet with the following explanation from The Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education:

Contemplative practices are methods incorporated into your daily life as a reminder to slow down, focus, and feel more connected to your self, your work, and your environment. Contemplative practices allow us to develop a capacity for deep concentration, usually in silence, to quiet the mind in the midst of the action and distraction that fills everyday life. This state of calm centeredness provides effective stress reduction and can also help address issues of meaning, values, and spirit. Contemplative practices can help people develop greater empathy and communication skills, improve focus and concentration, reduce stress and enhance creativity. In time, with sustained commitment, they cultivate insight, wise discernment, and a loving and compassionate approach to life.

As you can see, all of these definitions have similarities. Equally important is the idea of non-judgment. In this class, we have talked a lot about why we construct categories, create labels, and focus on difference. There is no doubt we live in a world of evaluation. Separation. Critique. Measurement. Inclusion and Exclusion. We are taught to separate, label, and deconstruct. For instance, imagine a class where a teacher does not judge or evaluate student performance (Repetti, 2010). I am sure many of you have gotten an “A” in a class in which you learned nothing, right? Moreover, some of you may have received a lower grade in a class in which you learned a great deal. I believe it is extremely important for us to show care and concern for each other as, “Self-criticism, hypercompetitiveness, and alienation are patterns firmly in place. It is the elephant in the room in many classes” (Haight, 2010, p. 36).  Throughout this class, I hope we can all continue to be more compassionate in our everyday lives. Before we move into the exercise, let’s practice being in the moment.

Please close your eyes, visualizing your day thus far as a moving picture. Start by rewinding to when you first awoke and then fast-forward through your day, briefly stopping to observe your interactions, movements, conversations, and sensory perceptions until you arrive in the current moment, sitting in the classroom. When you have “arrived in class,” explore, “Where are you now?” (Hart, 2004), relaxing for a few minutes, taking some deep breaths, and then tuning into your experience in the current moment. When finished, take a moment to discuss your experience with a partner.

10 minutes pass. Are you ready to give mindful eating a try?

Pick out one raisin and hold it in the palm of your hand. Take the time toreally observe and be with the raisin, looking at it and examining its shape, color, texture, size, and other visible features. Take a moment to notice your breathing as you bear witness to the raisin.

Do not change your breathing, but become aware of it as you become present with the raisin. Giving your full presence to the raisin, you are here and the raisin is here, existing together in this moment. If you are not present with the raisin, it is not here with you.

Take a moment to consider the following: By observing the raisin, you can see that the raisin is nothing more than a grape that has been harvested and then dried.

Imagine the time and energy required to make this possible and to get this raisin to you. In all of its vibrance, the raisin contains the earth, rain, and sunshine, starting as a seed, which becomes a vine, and then a grape.

A farmer invested energy to water and care for this raisin, watching it grow, and then harvesting and later drying it so it could be processed and packaged for your consumption.

The packaged raisin, placed on a truck and transported many miles to a warehouse, arrives at a grocery store and is placed on a shelf by an employee.  I then purchased this raisin for you, drove it to school, carried it to our classroom in my bag, and passed out the boxes to you. Now, with this raisin in your hand, you can see what a journey this raisin has undertaken. You might even consider smiling at the raisin in understanding.

Closing your eyes, I invite you to further observe the raisin by first smelling it. How would you describe its aroma? Is it earthy? Sweet? Does it smell like the package in which it was stored? Still smelling the raisin, feel its texture, squeezing it gently. Can you sense its juiciness? Feel the skin that protects its interior? 

I now invite you to slowly place the raisin in your mouth without biting it. Imagine that you have never had another raisin in your mouth until this moment. Consider how it feels on your tongue, remembering its shape, texture, size, and smell. What do you taste? The package? Grapes? Something else? Bite the raisin ever so gently to release its flavor.

Chewing gently, become aware that you are chewing. Only focus on chewing. Do not shift your awareness to what others are doing. Do not worry about how you might be perceived doing this activity. Leave your worries, fears, or wandering thoughts out of this moment. Be present with the raisin. Listen to its story. Once you finish chewing the raisin, swallow it with gratitude, opening your eyes when finished.

I invite you to take a moment to reflect on this activity before sharing your experience with a partner, I instruct. My goal in asking you to mindfully eat a raisin is to show the difficulties of maintaining single-focused attention and also to highlight the interconnection among beings - in this case, the food that sustains us and the many people involved in making these processes possible. How was your experience with the raisin? Going around the room, some responses include:

I don’t like raisins, but I didn’t mind the taste in this exercise.

I never realized how easy it is for my mind to wander. I had a lot of trouble

staying focused on the raisin.

I felt silly doing this exercise. Why is it important to care about a raisin?

Paying attention to the raisin is just an example. Imagine giving this same focus and presence to a person in your life, especially someone you love and care about. Then, imagine extending this presence and awareness to other activities in your life. For instance, “When we contemplate something, the boundary between ourselves and whatever we are contemplating disappears” (Miller, 2006, p. 76). It is in between these two spaces that we can come to recognize our interdependence. Through mindfulness and contemplation, we bring awareness to that which separates us but also to the actions in which we are engaging in the moment.  Not only can we focus on the moment – we are here together in this classroom discussing and practicing mindfulness – but we can also contemplate our connections to this raisin’s past but also its future. For example, how do we relate to this raisin as a living being? What about all of the people who helped to make this raisin possible? How does the raisin become part of you – your body - your life?

In order to first ask these questions, we must stop multitasking and center our focus on one object of our attention at a time - the raisin. Next, we can begin to apply this same attention and awareness to other objects of our focus: daily activities, interactions with others, what we consume and purchase, and so on. By more compassionately attending to the moment as well as the journey, we can become more aware of the choices we make and why, allowing us to be less reactive and more reflexive. Remember: these practices require lots of practice but ultimately it is about cultivating presence. Giving compassionate presence to another being is a present or gift. Our discussion winds down as we close our class with the Kabat-Zinn youtube video, Life is Right Now. I invite you, the reader, to watch this video before proceeding.

Now Home…

Opening my notebook, I start a new map. In the center of the page, I write Why mindfulness? I lean on John Miller (1994) to help me understand why contemplation can and should play a role in education. He answers my query by reminding me that contemplation is a type of self-learning wherein learners can come to believe in and trust their own intuition. He also reassures me that the most important reason contemplation should be integrated into higher education curriculums is that it teaches an individual to “gradually overcome his or her sense of separateness” (Miller, 1994, p. 57).  Hence, what begins as a contemplative classroom practice of ten minutes each class might grow into a daily practice, encouraging me to cultivate my own practice, but reminding me never to require students to participate in mindfulness exercises if they are not interested in doing so.

Sarath (2003) enters the conversation so I can consider mindfulness practices as a way to extend and question what constitutes education, without embracing any explicitly spiritual goals, as a tool to relieve stress and aid clarity and focus while still presenting a “trans-traditional spiritual framework that addresses concerns shared by multiple traditions. This does not preclude tradition-specific spiritual ties but provides an expanded framework through which the various spiritual traditions can be more deeply appreciated and understood” (p. 229). Thus, by learning to broaden one’s world view, a learner can come to appreciate many different ways of being in the world, thereby hopefully leading to a more compassionate orientation to life.

Zajonc (2006,) asks me to reflect on my own teaching by questioning, “What should be at the center of one’s teaching and students’ learning?” (p. 2). He believes it is love, asserting, “The curricula offered by our institutions of higher education have largely neglected this central, if profoundly difficult task of learning to love, which is also the task of learning to live in true peace and harmony with others and with nature” (p. 2). I agree. To teach is to love, but is it the same to say to love is to teach? To love more fully, I need to turn away from isolation to find a space of empathetic connection, including: respect, gentleness, intimacy, participation, vulnerability, transformation, education as formation, and insight (Zajonc, 2006, p. 3-4). Classes practicing mindfulness together have the potential to create safe spaces for inspiring exploration, reflexivity, and community-building. Within this space, mindfulness can improve:

the ability to maintain preparedness, orient attention, process information quickly and accurately, handle stress, regulate emotional reactions, and cultivate positive psychological states; that one-pointedness practice improves academic achievement; and that meditation enhances creativity, social skills, and empathetic responses (Repetti, 2010, p. 12).

While there is no single theory or practice that exemplifies or defines contemplative pedagogy, I continue to see contemplative pedagogies as “philosophies of education that promote the use of contemplative practices as valid modes of teaching and learning but also of knowledge construction and inquiry” (Repetti, 2010, p. 9), the primary emphasis being the cultivation of “attentiveness” and “awareness” (Komjathy in Coburn et al. 2011, p. 170) through practices such as visualization, meditation, deep listening, mindfulness practices, yoga, art, writing, self-inquiry, relaxation, nature observation, among many others (Grace, 2011, p. 99). Even so, there is no one-size-fits-all contemplative practice or pedagogy model. The success for some students and teachers does not suggest these teaching tools will benefit all learners nor all classes.

Employing mindfulness practices in the classroom is a way to bring “students back to what they are doing right now” (Haight, 2010, p. 31). Zajonc (2006) inspires me to ask what would teaching and learning look like if both students and faculty embraced and encouraged secular contemplative practices, training attention and awareness, as well as cultivating compassion, as essential components of any educational agenda? If contemplative practices, studies, or pedagogy encourage personal responsibility and accountability and enhance critical thinking through self-awareness and self-inquiry, while increasing creativity and freedom of expression optimally leading to greater academic success as Grace (2011) has taught me, then I feel quite confident claiming that contemplative pedagogy teaches a different type of engagement with oneself, one’s students, teachers, colleagues, and the world at large.

Because contemplative pedagogy is not part of a one-way-fits-all-learners’ process, teachers will always encounter a tension, even with the greatest and most compassionate intentions, wherein some learners benefit from these practices tremendously, others are disengaged and disinterested, and some are down right hostile to these concepts. The greatest promise of contemplative pedagogy, in my experience, is the opportunity for learners to experience another educational path which challenges the status quo. This learning journey might not be the path they will continue to walk; however, knowing that they can participate in the classroom in a more democratic manner offers spaces of possibility that are so often closed in educational settings.

In the end, the idea is not that students take risks that the teacher does not; instead, the concept embodies Che Gevera's (see Boal, 1995, p. 3) words that, "solidarity means running the same risks," further requiring us to realize the ‘basic goodness’ in ourselves and others as:

Basic goodness always exists in life, but we don’t always realize it. A contemplative approach attempts to see beyond the confusion of the present moment to recognize this basic goodness. Contemplative teaching consists of creating an environment which basic goodness develops and is provoked (not forced, but encouraged) (Ebbons in McWilliams, 2006, p. 6).

To see this “basic goodness,”  I must challenge myself to do my best to bear witness to my own preconceived ideas, judgments, mental clutter, and self-critical evaluations, hoping to share authority and arrive at a mutual purpose with the classes I teach so we can build a safe and respectful community.

Any activity can become contemplative if you create an intention to focus your awareness on the object of study  (sound, text, image, claim, person, moment, and so on) (Kroll, 2010).  Moreover, creating “down time” for students to explore, play, and experiment in an “unstructured, unplanned, and open” way can additionally help facilitate a contemplative environment. Finally, going into more depth with fewer concepts or ideas, as well as learning to embrace less certainty, will allow students to focus more attentively and cultivate greater awareness. In concert with Kroll (2010), I first started incorporating periods of classroom silence (five or ten minutes) into my classes. Then, I began experimenting with basic mindfulness exercises that help students understand nonjudgmental awareness as well as concentrative focus activities that place attention on one object of study at a time (for example: breath, body, or sound).  Over time, I have also integrated mindful breathing or loving kindness meditation (sending peace and well-being to one’s self and others), reciting mantras, engaging in movement, employing visualization, and contemplating poetry, texts, or short passages.

Freewriting is one of the easiest methods for encouraging contemplation within the classroom. In  freewriting activities, students learn to write without stopping to critique, edit, or focus on the quality of composition as the writings are not graded assignments but reflexive exercises (Elbow, 1998). This can also be accomplished through journaling, “aha” papers, or art projects. Beyond writing exercises, Kroll (2010) has raised my awareness that reading can also be a contemplative practice if you focus on short passages to “allow meaning to accumulate” as well as spending a day considering a passage to view it from multiple perspectives (p. 112).

Another step in integrating contemplative practices into my teaching has involved both practicing and teaching about P.E.A.C.E (Saltzman n.d.). Amy Saltzman’s (n.d., p. 8) words show me that by bringing awareness back to the body and breath in difficult and stressful situations,  I am bringing an understanding to the idea that the more I practice peace, the more peace I have. We could all do with a little more peace in the world, right?  P- is for pausing when difficulties arise. E- exhale, sigh, or groan and then inhale to keep breathing. A- reminds us to acknowledge, accept, allow the situation as it is, whether you are happy about it or not, accept your reaction to the situation, and allow your experience to occur. C- is for choosing how you will respond, being clear about what you want and your limits, finding courage to take action or not, extending compassion, and searching for the comedic aspect of the occurrence. Finally, E- is for engaging with others, the situation, and life.

I ask myself each day: How can I make a difference? How can I be more compassionate? How can I engage in listening more deeply?  What does the world need from me…right now? In asking myself these questions, I set my intention for how I move through my day. I may fail to reach these ideals, but I continue to ask questions, hoping that the more I practice tolerance, compassion, and mindfulness, the more able I will be to engage compassionately and to understand how to model mettacommunication in all of my learning, writing, teaching, and researching endeavors, making the lines between my personal and professional life squiggly, as Alan Watts would say. Embracing a pedagogy of hope, which enacts politics of resistance and imagines a utopian future (Denzin 2010, p. 111), I need contemplative practice and pedagogy, which is the step we can take together as a community of learners and teachers to inspire “hope” in the lives of the learners we encounter. By being aware of the impact we make in their lives, we can change the world. I hope you agree.

Ideally, I want to believe that in all of my encounters, I can reach some sort of loving, transformative moment of being-together, but with all of the cruelty, misunderstanding, miscommunication, hate, and violence in the world, I understand that teaching as a practice of compassionate engagement is an ideal that can only be partially realized, shared, and/or actualized, still worth striving to attain each time I enter a classroom. While I may never fully realize the mettacommunicative utopia I seek, recognizing that relationships are always complex and that, at best, the most I can hope for in any educational setting is  “productive asymmetry” (Bartesaghi, Personal Communication, 2011), I can still actively and mindfully attempt to practice teaching as compassionate engagement, working towards creating a more loving, tolerant, and playful world, still embracing spirituality, being creatively maladjusted, and supporting activist efforts that share my utopian visions. This essay has been an “act of love,” a call for contemplative pedagogy, a teaching manifesto, a performance text, a method of inquiry, and a vision of the future, while still trying to embrace and embody the present moment. It is an opportunity to lean on and be with you, for right now is all we have and what we do with this moment makes all the difference.

Six Weeks Later…

In a circle on round, colorful cushions on the floor, we sit in collective silence for one last time as a group. Six weeks of gathering together to sit, walk, and discuss mindfulness is finally coming to a close. As we go around the circle, we recount our time together on and off the mat. I hear others’ stories of triumph and failure. Practice and process. Learning. Teaching. Dreams and visions of change. Entering the Awakening to Life course, I had hoped to incorporate contemplative practices into my everyday life. Leaving, I feel a deep sense of comfort and calm. Now - not only am I awakening to life, but I am also reawakening to lifelong learning. Where will this wave carry me next?

Kneeling, I touch the earth. Connecting to the grass, its roots, the dirt, I touch the earth to remember our connection.  We inter-are. Touching the earth, I seek to embrace childlike wonder. Touching the earth, I am a tree connecting to what is below and what is above. Touching the earth, I find strength and stability as I breathe out my fear, anger, anxiety, and my suffering so that I can connect with myself, others, and the world. Once home, I approach the white space of this page. Typing these last words…

Breathing in, I conclude this paper.

Breathing out, I am thankful for your presence.

Breathing in, I feel gratitude for this opportunity.

Breathing out, I feel peaceful and at ease.

Breathing in, I feel happy and well.

Breathing out, may you feel peaceful and at ease.

Breathing in, may you feel happy and well.

Breathing out, I know that together we can make a difference.

Breathing in, it is a wonderful moment.


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