Contemplative Pedagogy: Going Deeper

This post is part of an ongoing series on contemplative practices in the writing classroom. It is about the absence of language as much as language itself.

Following a challenging autumn, during which we had a terrible hurricane, a contentious election, and the shootings at Newtown in which little children were mowed down with an automatic rifle, we needed some solace. The essays this semester have been about our support systems, beginning with community, then family, then job. The family¬†essay was the hardest to write because it was the closest to home. The students confused telling the reader that their family was superior to all others, their father was superman, etc. with giving the reader something to work with. Knowing somebody else has “the best mother in the world” is either a challenge to a person who thinks SHE has the best mother in the world, or a sadness to people who do not have the best mother in the world. The writer must dig deeper. I tried to help them do this with the guided meditation below.

Stipulated, of course, that this is all an experiment. I have no idea whether such a meditation can improve a student’s thinking processes and thus his writing. The present parameters for testing the results of such a meditation are inadequate and thus the exercise would be dismissed for academic publication; but shouldn’t we continue to experiment anyway? Shouldn’t we be looking for different criteria?

Exercise: The students sat comfortably in their seats, the lights off. We breathed for a while. After each phase of the guided meditation there should be a period of silence lasting about a minute.

Imagine yourself driving along, and seeing a lake which invites you to stop. You park and take a path leading to the lake. Did you lock your car? Take your purse? Is the roadway deserted or busy? What do you see around the path? How far do you see into the distance? What season is it? Go slowly. What do you see? Hear? Smell? Do you touch anything?

Arriving at the lake, take time to observe its surface — the birds, small fish, plants, ripples made by the wind, rocks sticking out of the water.

You will now descend a couple of yards below the surface of the lake. What do you see there? Does the light from above filter this far down? Lurk for a while.

The lake is deep, and now it is time to go to the bottom where the big fish swim. What do you see there? Are the big fish benign or threatening? Do they approach you? Is it dark? Do you see plants? Is there anything lying on the bottom of the lake?

Now it is time to rise slowly up through the layers to the surface, time to walk back to your car. Do you feel differently from when you were last at your car?  Physically? Mentally? Emotionally? Spiritually?

After a final minute or so of quiet, I reminded them that their own family story was like the top layer of the lake. It was now their assignment, in the next draft, to go deeper and find some deeper principles which could be shared with the reader.


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