Skip to content

Conversation #8: Contemplative Inquiry

Download Conversation #8

Arthur Zajonc

A conversation with Dr. Arthur Zajonc of Amherst College on teaching, learning, and contemplative inquiry.

While we may begin with the "pause that refreshes," if we leave it only at that then it's seen only as a break from learning. I'm really keen on it being seen also as a means of learning. That is to say, we school our attention — that's long been a part of the contemplative traditions, the deepening and stabilizing of attention — then, if we can bring that deepened and stabilized attention to the work at hand, it's going to be far more productive. And in addition, if one can take up a practice such as this contemplative inquiry practice, we add to that an enhanced learning capacity. So not only attention is schooled but also a new modality of inquiry is also offered to the student.

Links referenced in this episode:

A tip of the hat to the good folks at TalkShoe who helped us with some technical problems.

This is a rush transcript provided for your information and convenience. Accuracy is not guaranteed.

H: Hello, today I’m talking to Dr. Arthur Zajonc. Dr. Zajonc is the Andrew Mellon professor of physics and interdisciplinary studies at Amherst College where he has taught since 1978. His research has included studies in electron atom physics, quantum optics and the relationship between science, humanities, and contemplative conditions. He currently directs the academic program of the Center for Contemplative Mind, which supports appropriate inclusion of contemplative practice in higher education. Dr. Zajonc thank you for speaking with me today and I know we have been trying to get in touch with each for a little while.

Z: Yes, it’s a pleasure to be here!

H: Thank you so much, as you know what I would like to speak with you today is about contemplative practice broadly speaking and in the classroom in higher education and I wondered to begin if we could talk to about what is contemplative practice broadly speaking.

Z: Contemplative practice is ways gaining fuller attention, being more mindful of in this case the learning process that one's engaged in, whether that be with a text, natural phenomenal in sciences or with the arts. It brings an enhanced quality of awareness, fuller attention, and stabilized awareness to the materials at hand and allows for deeper engagement with that material.

H: I wondered if you could, for listeners that might not know and for myself, when you say mindful process. What exactly do you mean by mindfulness, I heard that you use it in different kind of contexts?

Z: It can mean a variety of things, in this particular place we’re looking at contemplative practice as it pertains to university and college education, and there are many hundreds of professors around the country who are making use in a variety of many ways. It can be as simple as a few moments of silence at the beginning of a class which are meant to settle the students. They come in with a set of concerns, anxieties, or what have you and through a bit guided mindfulness practice, they let loose of those and give greater attention to the class. But as the many professors are finding that we can also make use of it in for example considering a work of poetry or a work of art, where one needs or would like to come into a fuller and more complete connection to the work of art or the work of poetry that one's considering. So say one takes the line of poetry, you know someone like Emily Dickinson's “Tell the truth but tell it flat”, and works with that line to deepen one's relationship to it. Or it might be a work of art, say one of Rembrandt's paintings, and in each case that painting or that work of art or poetry becomes then more fully engaged by the student through attentive reading, attentive looking, developing what a couple of art historians have come to call beholding. We learn how to really see a painting, to read a painting, layer by layer, coming more and more into an intimate relationship with the work of art as it was intended by the artist himself or herself. So we take as the object of our attention, not the breath in this particular case, but the actual object we wish to study.

H: Interesting! That is an interesting approach, I wonder if you could, well two questions I just thought about. First, Could you go back and talk about the few minutes spent at the beginning of class and kind of getting students to become more attentive. How can faculty use that and has it been successful?

Z: As I mentioned we have about 1500 professors that we been working with at the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, where I head up the academic program. We have a wide range of programs for those people that are interested, faculty that are interested in this work, ranging from conferences and summer school and retreats and online resources. The simplest kind of practice is simply after students have arrived in class, to settle students in their chairs. Usually there’s a posture, which is recommended as basically supportive of developing a quality and clarity of mind. Students are then asked to relax their gaze or close their eyes, sit up right and take a few breaths. Following the breath in and out, allowing the breath to be kind of an anchor point for consciousness. Typically students are then asked to relax, to let go of other concerns and issues and simply to attend to the breath. That may last just a few minutes and then the students are brought back to the class, typically the class is then settled, you can just feel the quality in the space shift and then they bring fuller concentration to the work of the day. So that’s a way of preparing a class for fuller engagement.

H: Do you find ever that students are resistant to that?

Z: Occasionally, you get a report or two of students that are resistant. I say 99% of the time it's just fine. The students that are resistant sometimes if it's at the beginning of the class, the teacher will say, you know come in five minutes late and students would just arrive a few minutes after the start of the practice, wait at the door and then make there way in. It’s extremely rare actually.

H: Uh huh, I imagine that most students want an excuse to slow down and catch up.

Z: Exactly. It’s usually valued as a an important part of the class. One funny story in this regard, one of our teachers, Marilyn Nelson who is Poet Laureate of Connecticut, was teaching at the military academy at West Point. And towards the end of the semester they were crushed for time getting through some materials and she suggested that they not do the five minutes in the beginning and they just refused, they had to have their five minutes. It was one of the few times that they could settle themselves, become less stressed, give their minds directly to what they were doing, so they insisted. The real value was clear to them.

H: Do most of the faculty who use that specific practice, do most of them do it everyday or it is daily thing in class throughout the semester.

Z: It varies, some teachers use it on a class-by-class basis. Say they don’t typically meet everyday, they meet two or three times a week times a week, so they’ll do it during each class. Others will pick once a week or for special occasions, it’s actually varied. I say usually one a week.

H: OK OK, you know, have you ever tired this at a faculty meeting, I was thinking how beneficial it might be for us to focus our attention and…

Z: Yes, occasionally we have reports of say department chairs. We’ll say “listen before we start the meeting I’d like to have us reflect on a line of poetry or a particular philosophical line which is illuminating and they ask for a little bit of quiet, they focus on that and then go on. It depends a lot of course on the context and situation but it has been used.

H: Interesting, back to the other example you mentioned and just brought up again about using work of art or poetry, can you think of examples, you mentioned humanity based, what about for the so-called hard sciences and I know you are from a hard science yourself, what about usage in that?

Z: Yes, I'm in physics. There you find it's less common, it's more in areas like the humanities, but sometimes you find in in economics, I have a colleague whose working as an economist, Professor Barbusont at Amherst College whose working with the theme of wellness and poverty, suffering and so forth. A number of economists around the country have started in a very gracious and gentle way asking their students to actually hold and consider the suffering of others or to hold and consider how it is they act themselves in their own economic transactions in life. The case that were are as they might call it in economics, optimizing our utility function which is a very abstract notion or what is it that actually drives a certain kind of consumer act versus let's say another type, so by introspection one begins to become more self conscious and aware of what it is that is actually animating our actions as an economic actor. In the sciences, I'd say ecology is the one of the places we see these sorts of practices being used most, there's a professor down at American University in Washington who makes use to them in a very vigorous way. It bring students into relationship with the natural world, they can begin to perceive certain kinds of relationships in the complex connections within the ecological systems they are studying by giving them more attention and again looking at motives in the way in which we interact with our environment, so contemplative practice is not only about stress reduction or centering, it's also about discovery and about learning. You can learn about our own drives, our goals, the way in which nature is organized, there are a variety of layers and means by which we can come into a fuller and clearer understanding both of ourselves and the world around us.

H: And to just be concrete about it, the professor you just mentioned in the ecology class. He or she provides space in the classroom for students to do this and like encourage students and guides students through these kind of times for reflection. Is that what it looks like?

Z: Yes, it can take on a wide range of forms. For some of them it's field trips during an outing, field outing, they will do nature observation. Alright, but the nature observation will be at the hand of a contemplative quiet and focused attention and directing that attention to sounds, to certain kinds of sights, you know certain relationships to an ecosystem that night be missed other wise, so it’s a way of settling the mind, directing the attention, perceiving relationships. Those are the three I would say are key. Settling the mind, directing attention, and then perceiving relationships that might otherwise be unappreciated or missed. Yeah, there is a wide range of the exercises that are being attempted by faculty and being developed all across the country, so it's no one particular practice that one can point to as what everyone is doing, people are developing as they need them.

H: I can see that being so useful to students too because it gives them — you mentioned learning, and beyond just learning the content and the objective for the faculty member, these are skills they can then use on their own, kind of noticing the world around them, when they are not in class.

Z: I see them also as a path of inquiry, that is to say, how is that we hold the question. Very often we think of education as simply learning the facts, but of course the most interesting aspects of education are around research and discovery. And lots of times the answer to our questions requires sustained attention. The great scholars, the artists and scientists, really have to sustain their investigation often of long periods of time bringing a really concentrated form of attention to the task at hand, the question at hand. And that process of engaging a question repeatedly over time is one which is supported these kinds of practices. And so in my classes for example we will take a particular issue, ask students to consider it quietly, to write about it, to reflect on it, to contemplate it, and then to work with it in a particular [inaudible] modality that I've developed where students give it their full attention and having really now isolated the issue and really thought about it carefully, but then also to open up their minds to a range of unexpected possibilities through what I call open awareness. So they give focused attention to the content that they prepared, but then open their awareness to what Simone Weil called the void or spacious awareness. You find this described Richard Feynman the physicist or David Bohm the famous physicist that the mind really move between these two poles, of a really concentrated and focused awareness and then very often the creative space comes unexpectedly as you are walking along the beach all of a sudden you get the solution to the problem you have been trying to studying and working on for months or days or even years and it comes out of the blue, so called. Right? But you can prepare that space, that spacious awareness, that openness, but it's as productive a space as is the most concentrated and you might say more academically focused time. So this archetype of contemplative reflection between focused and open awareness is something that I build into my courses.

H: Do you find students are they surprised by that, seeing how valuable that is in your courses? Or do you find them just responsive and refreshed by it?

Z: Pretty much responsive and refreshed. Most of the courses that I do this work in are electives and students know that there will be some part of the course will have these exercises. We do many other things, more traditional kind of learning exercises and text analysis, and study and so forth. I build into each week a substantial amount time for this work and then sometimes I will offer an extra hour outside of class for those who would like to go further with it. A good fraction of the students will choose to join me to do that.

H: Good! Very nice! What is your background in terms of these types of practices. How did you get into this? How did you start to incorporate this into your academic life?

Z: Well I’m in my late fifties, so it goes back bout thirty-five years for me, when these sorts of practices were coming into of the United States from both European and Asian sources, that’s how I got interested in contemplative practice and developed a practice of my own. I have been a meditator for about thirty-five years and maybe about a dozen years ago I began to say, well, it been of great benefit for me in my personal and professional life, my personal practice, so why shouldn’t I share it with my students. I discovered that there were others around the country who were gradually beginning to think about the same sorts of things and we organized this academic program within the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, and we have offered a fellowship for about the last twelve years so called contemplative practice fellowship, first organized and offered through the American Council of Learned Societies, a very distinguished group, and now the last couple of years we've been offering them just directly out the center. So we have over 130 I think now contemplative practice fellows in universities all around the country. Those have been selected out of over a thousand applications that we have gotten from people who would like to offer such courses. So there are many many many folks out there that who are involved in this kind of work now and developing in responsible ways an important additional resource that students can draw on, namely their concentrated and attentive mind as they go through their learning and study.

H: I think that is such valuable tool, you know, I just think about today's busy students, so many of my students work and have families and these various things, that to find a place to pause in their learning would be a great challenge for them.

Z: Its both the pause, you know I think that is important, that they are able to settle the mind from daily distractions and then turn it self-consciously and in an attentive mode towards the work at hand. So there’s that settling, that emotional balance which is created. But it is also a way of schooling the attention so one can give what William James calls “sustained voluntary attention” for a longer period of time to the work at hand, so it’s a way of augmenting our attentive capacities, and then it's in addition as I said an actual path of knowledge or a way of inquiry. While we may begin with the pause that refreshes, you know, if we leave it only at that then it's sort of seen only as a break from learning, and I’m really keen on it been seen, also, as a means of learning. That is to say we school our attention, that's long been a part of the contemplative tradition, the schooling of attention, the deepening and stabilizing of attention, then if we can bring that deepened and stabilized attention to the work at hand, then it's going to be far more productive. And then in addition if one can take up a practice such as this contemplative inquiry practice we can add to that an enhanced learning capacity so not only the attention is schooled but actually a new modality of inquiry is also offered to the student.

H: So do you find then, and I guess I’m confessing I would need to be coached on that, do you find that students need to be coached to get beyond that pause?

Z: Yes! Absolutely! I mean in order to get to the pause they need to be coached, but I would say if we think about meditation at all these days, we think of it as relaxation as a way of de-stressing, and as valuable as that is, that's really not what the university is about. You know, the university is about learning, discovery, so forth. And I think that we undervalue and misunderstand contemplative engagement by thinking of it only as relaxation; it really has much more to offer by a way of schooling attention and developing a contemplative research modality that’s available to not only faculty but to students who take this up with us.

H: I wonder if you could, as we are getting closer to end here, I wonder do you have resources that you might recommend or offer to faculty listening to this, who might be interested in integrating this into their teaching approaches?

Z: Absolutely, there are three things on mention. First is a book I have just finished writing from in front press called “Mediation as Contemplative Inquiry” so people can go look that up. Second, on the web there are really wonderful resources that the Center for Contemplative Mind website which is, and there is a new Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education that’s just been formed, so those who are in the academy would like to become part of an association of many — now about 200 faculty and administrators — they can go to the association website which is and become a member of that association.

H: Thank you! Thank you so much. We can link, we can put links to all these websites and to your book as well on our podcast website so people can have access to that. Any last words of advice or wisdom you would like to offer?

Z: I think it is a quite exciting era actually, this whole process has been really very gratifying to see the level of excitement and enthusiasm between colleague around this theme, so I’d invite others to join in.

H: Thank you so much and thank you so much for speaking with me today. I really appreciate it and I’m glad to finally get to talk to you.

Z: It’s a pleasure!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.