After more than 20 years of college teaching, I had perfected the process of pre-lecture hyperventilation. I celebrated my ability to squeeze in one last phone call, email or appointment before scooping up my disordered notes and making a bolt for the classroom – where I would immediately launch into an activity, lecture or group discussion.
Many of my students noticed this behaviour pattern, but their reactions were often ones of awe and admiration for how I seemingly did it all. For others, my modus operandi was comfortably normative: part of the fabric of their own academic psyches and experiences. In spite of my commitment to be the best teacher possible, I had perpetuated an unhealthy culture of frenetic activity that is particularly intense in the academy and that is at odds with deep – as opposed to broad – learning.
Chronic activity, and the accompanying stress, leaves little space for creativity, introspection, compassion and emotional understanding. Ironically, these dimensions of education appear in the mission statements of many of the most prestigious institutions in the US. Their absence is a significant barrier to interior development, understanding of self and others, and lasting learning.
So, albeit late in my teaching career, I have abandoned my old, exhausting ways and embraced contemplative education instead. Contemplative educators prioritise the transformation of habits of the mind: the deepening of attention and insight, the understanding of the self as influenced by both interiority and exteriority, and a commitment to and reflection on the experiential. The central core of these practices is the disruption of unproductive habits to allow for the development of awareness and the cultivation of compassion.
Essential to all contemplative practices is classroom silence and stillness. So now, before I do anything else, I begin our class with the sound of a Tibetan singing bowl. I urge my students to clear their desks, sit still and silent, with what many contemplatives call an open heart and strong back, and follow their breathing for five minutes or so, as a means to release their thinking. This is also a reminder for me.
In the early weeks of the semester, many students are seemingly unimpressed, and even ill at ease. As I rest into my own stillness, they fiddle with their backpacks, eye their watches and glance at one another with somewhat panicked expressions. That is not surprising. We are a culture that fears silence, and teachers fear it as much as anyone. Professionally socialised to both value and bestow words, many of us see silence in the classroom as a failure to disseminate knowledge or generate dialogue and activity. A substantive body of literature in higher education underlines this perception. Silence in class is often regarded as a form of student resistance to incompetent or boring teaching.
However, this attitude is not universal. In many Filipino, First Nations and Japanese classrooms, for example, silence and stillness are seen not as an absence but rather as a presence, with a clear purpose and agency. And as the weeks go by, my own students, too, come to see our opening moments of quiet along those lines. As one said to me this semester: “For the first time in my life, I know what silence sounds like.”
From there, I gradually move towards a more general integration of silence into my teaching. I show a slide labelled “Sevasana in our Classroom”; in the yogic tradition, sevasana is the final, relaxed pose, allowing the body to process the postures completed. Similarly, I ask students to sit in silence and consider what they have heard. Any class member can also request a moment of silence at any point throughout the 60- to 75-minute class, and many come to do so when they feel the need.
Afterwards, we might talk about why silence was needed in that particular moment – whether to engage or disengage – what we found in it, and what we might do because of it. Sometimes we even write about it. But more often than not, we merely let the experience be and move on.
Certainly, I want my students to understand the principles of my discipline and to leave the classroom with a firm knowledge base, but I hope that they will leave with much more. I want them to hear silence and to feel their bodies in stillness; to be able to transcend the nuisance variables of their lives; and to understand what it means to go within for the important questions, and to trust the answers they find there.
The quiescence that develops over the semester in my class seems to run counter to all that we think we know about university students in 2018. As counter-cultural as this might be, we extend hospitality to our silence, embracing its peace and comfort. Doing so leaves us calmer, more reflective and more fully present in our own lives and in each other’s.
Patricia Owen-Smith is professor of psychology and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Oxford College, Emory University.