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Contemplative Academy

I sat next to empty seats on my two flights up to Hartford (changing planes in Charlotte) so I didn't talk to much of anyone until I got on the shuttle I'd reserved. I was sharing the vehicle with three young folks who looked to be in their mid-twenties. As we pulled away from the airport, I said, "Hey, I noticed y'all had instruments. Are you musicians then?"

The reply: "No, we're not, we just enjoy carrying musical instruments with us wherever we go."

A man after my own heart! I would later learn his name was Gabriel Saltman. I also discovered that he and his companions were headed to the same place as me — to Amherst College, for the second annual conference of the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education. Or, more succinctly, the Contemplative Academy.

Actually I was staying at the Holiday Inn Express in nearby Bradley. I mention this because it was something of a mistake. There are no hostels in the area, so I'd gone with the conference hotel. I'd looked on a map and thought it was about a mile from campus. Turns out it's more like two miles. And there are no sidewalks at the hotel. (Also, though it was clean and quiet it was bland and generic. I would have been happier in a bed and breakfast or even a rundown motel with some character.) The upshot is that after I checked in, I had to take a taxi cab from the hotel to Amherst College campus.

My driver was a young woman; I later learned she was 18. As she zoomed down the road we got to talking about the fall foliage. I had gotten there just in time to see the leaves starting to turn, though the peak was still some weeks away. As my driver started describing her favorite fall colors — she was partial to red — I noticed that traffic was stopped ahead of us. Yet she didn't seem to be slowing down. At the last possible moment, she swerved to the right and drove off the road between a Jeep and a telephone pole, narrowly missing both. No collision, but it was a near thing, and I think we could have been badly hurt if she hadn't snapped back to attention in time.

Which was ironic, because strengthening attention is one of the major aims of contemplative practice.

The conference kicked off with a keynote speech by Stephen Prothero. I first learned of Prothero, oddly enough, through The Wild Hunt. His theme was "The Art of Doing Nothing: Wandering as Contemplative Practice." It was a compelling presentation. In the question and answer session after, I wanted to add Guy Debord and the Situationists to his litany of famous wanderers. Their concept of the dérive would have fit nicely, I think.

(This talk took on a deeper resonance later that evening when I returned to the hotel and read an e-mail from my boss who is in Riyadh. She had just had two days of "freedom," meaning she was able to "explore" the city — strictly under male escort, and having to self-monitor against being excessively animated or otherwise calling attention to herself. While Prothero discussed the gendered nature of wandering, my boss was living it.)

The conference began in earnest Saturday morning. Amishi Jha presented neuroscience research on how mindfulness practices can strengthen attention. Later, Arthur Zajonc remarked that the presentations by Prothero and Jha extended to both the poles of contemplation — open awareness and focused attention.

When the parallel sessions began, we all faced some very difficult choices. Because the conference was essentially "maxed out," there were no fewer than seven different offerings on hand at any given moment. This despite the fact that it was a fairly small conference — only about 160 or so total attendees, I believe. Further confusing matters, each of the seven rooms hosted three thirty-minute sessions in sequence. Some people scrambled around from room to room trying to make the sessions that most interested them. Many of us (myself included) chose to simply commit to a room and check out all three sessions in that space.

Thus, over the course of the entire conference, I sat in on eight parallel sessions and missed approximately 54.

My Saturday morning sessions began with "Education of Peacemakers: Challenges and Opportunities in Interreligious Dialogue in Undergraduate Education" by Diane Bliss and Sr. Margaret Murphy. I was astonished when Sr. Margaret concluded with a Jewish song, first in Hebrew, then in English. Her white hair revealed her to be in the wisdom years, but her voice was something outside time. Seriously, I don't think I've ever heard anything so beautiful in my life. I was moved to tears.

Next, Mary Ann Kahl and Valerie Schmitz led a discussion on "Diversity and Dialogue: Critical Elements for Collective Intelligence." I took a special interest in this, as early that morning I'd identified as a personal objective that I need to learn how to foster better group discussions. They attended first to space and time. They had us quickly rearrange the furniture so that we were sitting closer to one another. They put a small timer on the screen counting down the minutes we had remaining. Yet they didn't have control over a third crucial parameter: number. We started with a dozen people, but more kept entering and soon their were two dozen. We went around the circle with brief introductions: who we are, where we came from, and why we are here. By the time we'd made it all the way around the circle, we were virtually out of time. Nevertheless I found it a valuable exercise.

Finally Jane Carpenter lead us in a "practice of embodiment." I'm not sure if this practice has a name or comes out of a specific tradition. (Since Jane mentioned the Wind Horse I suppose it might come from Tibetan Buddhism.) I will enumerate the five steps here, primarily to exercise my own memory, since they will be hopelessly obscure without Jane's instruction which I can't duplicate. The five steps are: earth, heavens, heart, holding, extending. I found this very helpful and think it holds great promise.

It was time for lunch. Because I registered late, when the conference was nearing capacity, I wasn't on the meal plan. As fate would have it, neither were the musicians I'd met. Under the guidance of recent graduate and current employee of Amherst, we all made our way just off campus to a sandwich shop; afterward we took a look at the Emily Dickinson museum. I suppose most of the musicians were about half my age, and I was aware for perhaps the first time that they are a different generation. I mentioned how environmental education had been a big thing when I was in elementary school, and they were amazed. Likewise I was amazed at, for example, Molly Jones' description of living in a zen temple. Together with the summery weather and the fall foliage, I found their presence enormously refreshing.

Poster sessions were next. I was surprised that there were only three.

My afternoon parallel sessions began with "Contemplative Multitasking(?)" by David Levy and Alfred W. Kaszniak. (I had to sit in on this one just to learn what David was up to. I'd checked out his webinar called "No Time to Think: The American University and Its (Anti-)Contemplative Roots" back in May, and it was one of the factors that motivated me to attend the conference.) Their $150K NSF study may be the first to look at a contemplative intervention into our heavily mediated technology culture. An initial look at their results seems to suggest that Zen mindfulness training can help people be more effective (or efficient?) in a hectic office environment.

When Daniel Barbezat began speaking I had a momentary fear that he was going to simply read his paper in a monotone. I couldn't have been more wrong. In fact, I should mention that at most conferences there are some duds, but at this conference I found all the presentations to be of a uniformly high quality, without exception. But even amongst all these presentations, Daniel stood out. He didn't have any Powerpoint slides or multimedia. What he did have was a presence that was absolutely transfixing. The only professor I can think of with a similar presence would be Marty Linsky, whom I encountered at Chaos, Conflict and Courage. I found it almost impossible to take notes while David spoke, but I did jot down that he asked his first-year students to spend fifteen minutes contemplating an ordinary object of their choosing, and then to write about it. But I could have listened to him talk all day.

The third presentation in this set was Sara Lazar's "Neurobiology of Meditation" — hooray, a title without a colon! Here we enjoyed some hardcore science geekery. It seems the paralimbic cortex is active in meditation, and the insula and prefrontal cortex are bigger or thicker in meditators. Also, Zen appears to help therapists provide better care. Is it reasonable to extrapolate that perhaps contemplation may help teachers do better in a similar manner?

This session was unique in that the Q&A for all three presentations was combined and saved 'til the end — bearing out my notion that one should commit to a room for the duration. A man from Italy spoke up: "I didn't start meditating in the Zen tradition in order to be faster and more efficient." That garnered a round of applause. David Levy was quite receptive to this criticism, lamenting our "radically instrumentalized culture."

Soon we were all gathered in that same big room again for the ACMHE forum, a chance for all the members of the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education to discuss business. A book appears to be in the works. The consensus of the group seemed to be that an extra day could be added to the conference. However, there was also talk of offering a conference on the West Coast. Perhaps a second conference would obviate the need for expansion.

Also here's a little statistical nugget that surprised me. According to the Higher Education Research Institute, the majority of students now coming to college say they are on a spiritual quest.

That night I went out to dinner with another Italian guy (not the one mentioned above) at a local place called Tabellas. A restaurant with a manifesto — I like that. We discussed amari, of course, amongst many other things.

My dinner companion retired to his B&B, and I walked back to campus. The unseasonably warm weather was beginning to cool off. The moon, just past full and starting to wane, was shining above a church steeple to create a picture-postcard New England tableau. I arrived back at Converse Hall in time to catch the second half of a jazz performance with Gabriel, Molly, and the other students I had met and Ed Sarath. It was all improvised in the moment. I gather they all studied together in the Creativity and Consciousness Studies Program at University of Michigan.

Sunday was the final half-day of the conference. The morning began with a panel called "Contemplative Pedagogy and the Academic Disciplines: Value Added or Changes Everything?" with Susan Burggraf, Barry Kroll, Judith Simmer Brown and Thomas Coburn. The consensus seemed to be that most everyone starts with "value added" and ends up at "changes everything." When the conversation turned to promoting such practices throughout the academy, we again took up the theme of instrumentalizing contemplation and the pressure to do so. We were further advised to use words like "enhance" and "enrich." Don't oversell the transformation of the academy in a zealous evangelical fashion. That will only scare people away.

My final set of parallel sessions consisted of only two presentations, the third having been moved to another room. Karen Jennings, Tom Bassarear and Wesley Martin led a discussion on "Keene State College's Efforts to Transform Educational Practices at the College." (Another colon-free title.) The very first thing they mentioned certainly got my attention: They got the Dean on board. How, I wanted to know? They offered a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course on campus, got the Dean to participate, and she became a supporter. Another program involved the Head Groundskeeper. The lesson to keep administrators and staff involved is one I am taking to heart. They aim in all their efforts to avoid any sort of in-group/out-group dynamics. All are invited and a spirit of openness is embraced. We were advised to "be like water" in efforts on our own campuses.

The last presentation was "Hospitable Space: Spelman's Journey to a Contemplative Campus" by Veta Goler. The presence of this title on the schedule is what "sealed the deal" for me in my decision to attend the conference. I also got to share a couple car rides and breakfasts with Veta. I'd hoped that her efforts at an HBCU would have some resonance with mine (though I am, of course, just getting started) and I was not disappointed.

We had a final gathering in the big room. It began with a mix of poetry and improvisational music and concluded with a variation on the bell meditation. Then it was time to go. I'd arranged for a shuttle back to the airport and this time shared it with Veta and three other conference-goers. Our conversations continued for the whole ride and probably even after that — I had to run to catch my plane.

On the way home I sat next to a guy with some pretty serious flight anxiety. Naturally I talked up the idea of a simple breathing meditation. During a lull in our conversation, I did a little of that myself, and could almost imagine that I was drawing off some of his anxieties, feeling them dissolve in my calm. We talked quite a bit. I don't know that our conversation really helped him — he said it did — but it certainly made an impression on me. I could tell the conference had worked a changed in me.

A few other random things I learned at the conference: MBSR is huge, especially in medical circles, and this might be a good point of entry for our campus. The issue of "language" came up again and again; people are wrestling with how best to communicate these concepts without scaring their colleagues away. I was saddened by how several people obviously experience the academy as oppressive; I know that's real, but my own experience has been so liberating. Arthur Zajonc said he hoped our conversations with others between session would be the best part of the conference, and indeed I found it to be so, but I didn't take notes on those and this write-up is too long already.

All in all, it was possibly the best conference I've attended over the past decade.

I did not make a presentation myself, by the way. I came to listen and learn. Maybe next year.

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