Contemplative Pedagogy for Establishing Presence and Healing Stress

This is a talk given for the Contemplative Pedagogy Working Group, which is part of the Institute for Teaching Excellence & Faculty Development. This center supports the integration of contemplative pedagogy into course design and teaching. In this talk I explained how I use contemplative pedagogy to establish presence in the classroom and to heal the stress of academic life.

I would like to thank Brian Baldi for inviting to me to speak before your group. It is a great comfort and support to know that other people at UMass Amherst share my interest in bringing mindfulness and meditation into the classroom.

I will start by telling you my story, in which suffering was the seed from which healing and insight blossomed. I suffered from recurrent headaches, then rediscovered meditation, which healed the suffering and opened my eyes to the suffering of others, in particular, the suffering of my students and the people in my department, Mathematics and Statistics, and the people in my building. Although my building is called the Lederle Graduate Research Tower, I remind myself each time I enter that its real name is Stress Center.

We work in a culture of pressure and stress, which are everywhere, whether you are an undergrad, a graduate student, a postdoc, or a professor: publishing papers, applying for research grants, teaching, doing committee work, attending conferences, answering email. The wheel never stops turning. Tenure and promotion are major achievements, but because the standards are so high, earning them is often fraught with anxiety and fear. There is a huge and obvious question that is only rarely addressed. How can we heal the stress that is our response to this pressure and perhaps even heal it? I will return to this topic at the end of the talk.

My story starts in 1980, when I had my first experience with debilitating headaches. I worked with a therapist who taught me biofeedback and meditation, two techniques that completely cured the headaches, which miraculously disappeared. But the day after the headaches disappeared, I stopped doing meditation. The headaches returned with a vengeance in February 2000, an earthquake exploding inside my head. The pills prescribed by the many doctors I consulted changed my personality and drained all my intellectual and emotional energy. I suffered from the pain and even more from my outrage over the pain, which I reacted to with anger, fear, and self-pity, all of which made my pain and suffering much worse. “How could this have happened?” I shouted. “Why me? Why now? I don’t deserve it.”

After suffering for two and a half years, I sought help from another therapist, Jean Colucci, who based her therapy on meditation and Buddhist teachings. While participating in a meditation retreat, I experienced the truth about the headaches and the suffering they had caused. This truth is so simple, yet so deep: it is not the pain that causes suffering, but the mental state associated with the pain. The mystery of this wisdom. It had taken me three and a half years to understand deeply what I could now express in a single short sentence. Eventually I learned not to push the pain away, or to react to the pain with anger and fear, but rather to accept it. Accepting the pain allowed me to embrace a conceptual paradox. The pain, which I had hated because it had tortured me, became my best teacher, a wise guide who continues to reveal new insights about life and pain and suffering and letting go and love.

My experiences with the headaches and the healing were so profound that I wrote a book about them, titled Blinding Pain, Simple Truth: Changing Your Life Through Buddhist Meditation. The book was published in 2011.

Besides healing the suffering of the headaches, meditation has bestowed other rewards of infinite value: quieting the mind, bringing peace, allowing the body’s natural healing powers to flourish. I learned that pain wants to be a verb, not a noun, an energy flow, not a thick, brick wall. I learned that no matter how bad the pain is, it could always be worse. Gratitude and compassion are two of its fruits.

Most important for this talk is the insight that mindfulness and meditation can help us cope with the pressures of academic life and heal the stress that arises from those pressures. I also brought these tools into the classroom to help my students. For a number of years I proceeded modestly, beginning each class with a short meditation exercise to establish presence. I did this without using the language of meditation and by making clear that it is completely voluntary. With small variations here are my instructions.

If you would like to participate, then I invite you to close your eyes, sit up straight in the chair, and start breathing slowly. Just relax. There is no need to do anything except relax and breathe. Give yourself this gift. As you become aware of your breath, start to feel present.

What I would like to emphasize is the modesty of the enterprise. I was reluctant to spend more than half a minute leading this exercise because I expected, or perhaps feared, that a number of students would resent a longer exercise out of a desire to focus on learning math.

This semester I am teaching two advanced undergraduate classes. A few weeks ago something extraordinary happened in both classes. I finished presenting the material about ten minutes early and spent the rest of the class time talking about my headaches and meditation and suggesting that we spend additional time practicing meditation. All of a sudden I became the focus of twenty open, happy, and relaxed faces, which looked at me with gentle, compassionate eyes eager for the wisdom that only meditation can bring. I was overwhelmed by this experience, which after four decades of teaching was absolutely unique.

I also asked the students to let me know by email what they think about the plan of spending more time on meditation. Their responses were much more enthusiastic than I could ever have imagined. Interestingly a few students also praised my teaching. I interpreted their praise as an expression of gratitude for my bringing mindfulness into the classroom. Here is a sample of the comments.

I also conducted a vote. In one class about 2/3 of the students said yes to the longer meditation, and in the second class 80% of the students said yes to the longer meditation, including one student who wrote “YES times 1099.”

I return to the topic of stress in academic life, with which I began this talk. For the past three years I have been meeting weekly with graduate students in my department and in the Department of Physics to meditate and discuss issues of stress. In this endeavor I have been collaborating with Jonathan Machta, a professor of physics. After participating in a group meditation, we discuss how stress enters the students’ lives and how they might deal with it. I also share with them the liberating, simple truth at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching, which is based on the analogy between pain and the pressures of academic life on the one hand, and suffering and stress on the other hand. Here is a formulation.

Those who attend find our weekly meetings helpful. There is, however, some disappointment over the fact that attendance has been low. I realize that the pressures that the weekly meetings could help heal are precisely the pressures that keep the students from attending these meetings.

I end this talk by asking how we can expand the activities to give our students and our colleagues the tools of meditation and mindfulness. Doing so will create a more peaceful and less stressful environment at UMass Amherst, from which everyone will benefit.

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