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Some Reflections on Creating Meditation & Mindfulness Courses for Academic Credit
“The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. No one is compos sui if he have it not. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. But it is easier to define this ideal than to give practical instructions for bringing it about.”
Principles of Psychology (1890)
A few drinks of Scotch in 2001 (mindful ones!) with Dr. Charles Moldow, then a dean in the University of Minnesota Medical School, sparked my connection to the Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing. I’d recently retired after thirty-five years of teaching English and humanities at Minneapolis Community and Technical College in downtown Minneapolis. For as many years I’d studied and practiced Zen meditation. I was sixty, had good years teaching older and first-in-their-family students, but I was leaving dissatisfied. For thirty years I’d dreamt of bringing meditation to Americans without the trappings of religious dogma or Asian culture—especially to those not likely, as I was not likely as a young man, ever to enter a Buddhist or Hindu center. Where better than colleges and universities? Efforts to bring meditation courses to my own college had failed. Curriculum committees rejected meditation as unsuitable for academic credit.
Charlie urged me to contact Dr. Mary Jo Kreitzer, the director of the Bakken Center, to explore whether my years of college teaching and Zen practice might serve in the world of wellbeing and innovative healthcare. Mary Jo was interested!—and throughout the last seventeen years has been an unflagging ally as meditation, mindfulness, and yoga have become embedded in the Center’s work.
I shepherded an Introduction to Meditation course through the curriculum process (it took multiple drafts to persuade that silent sitting could legitimately earn graduate credit), and taught it fall semester 2002. The following year an Advanced Meditation course was approved. These were among the first, if not the first, academic courses teaching both the theory and practice of meditation.
In 2006, Jon Kabat-Zinn visited the Center to lead retreats and discuss his work with mindfulness at the Massachusetts General Hospital. He suggested an academic offering based on his eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course, and my colleague Terry Pearson and I developed a twelve week academic course and taught it spring 2007. In the years since, the Center has sponsored studies examining the benefits of mindfulness in working with disease conditions, developed non-credit community MBSR courses, and created academic offerings exploring mindfulness in business and the workplace, as well as a host of other mindfulness initiatives.
WILLIAM JAMES’ QUESTION
Drinks of Charlie’s good Scotch and a meeting with Mary Jo gave me a second career—seventeen years at the Center. And, surprisingly, an approach to the question offered on the previous page by William James (sometimes honored as “the father of American psychology”) over a century ago: how can we teach students to strengthen “the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again”? For James, “An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.” Indeed, “No one is compos sui if he have it not.” These are strong words! But how can we teach voluntary attention control? What “practical instructions” could his Harvard faculty offer students—or themselves, for that matter? Neither in 1890 or today does our educational system have answers. But many contemplative traditions do. In the Zen approach, one brings the wandering attention back to a focus: on the body, the breath, and ultimately on the flow of awareness as it unspools moment by moment. One forms an intention to work directly with the attention itself in its nakedness (this most mysterious capacity of mind that lies at the very center of awareness)—to work with it and strengthen it. James would be surprised, and I suspect pleased, at this re-awakening in the west to the contemplative arts—and to the essential yet indefinable nature of the attention itself.
THE ACADEMIC COURSES
In both the meditation and mindfulness classes, students read materials that include sacred writings in Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religious traditions; Native American spirituality; Henry David Thoreau’s Transcendentalism; contemporary approaches to meditation practice; and current scientific explorations of how meditation and mindfulness can promote health and wellbeing. An intellectual understanding of meditation, then, goes hand in hand with learning and practicing meditation—with the practical effort of bringing back the “wandering attention” again and again to the body, the breath, and the flow of thought and emotion. Intellectual understanding is informed by practice itself; and the practice informs the intellectual understanding. As in a course in applied music or art, theory and practice are inseparable.
Over the years I’ve seen students from every area—music, literature, art, science, mathematics, engineering, social science, business, and the health sciences, among others. Most students are in the last years of undergraduate or graduate school and face a blizzard of stressors: relationships, roommates, grades, excessive credit loads, demanding outside work schedules, and debt loads. Some already have families, and most are extremely anxious about future careers and earning possibilities. Having heard and seen reports that “mindfulness” can help them, they want to learn.
An occasional student arrives in class simply to fill a credit gap, while others have months or years of meditative practice and want to deepen their experience. Yet others have tried meditation and given up, finding they can’t “stop thinking.” My first job is to assure everyone that the normal thinking mind is welcomed—that over time they can develop a new relationship to the endless flow of thought.
A significant minority of students arrive with histories of anxiety, depression, panic attack, ADHD, and/or other emotional and psychological struggles. Every year there are a few students who aren’t ready for meditation, whose personal issues are too powerful. I urge them to delay taking the course, seek counseling or therapy, and address wounds that are too painful to bear in the unstructured openness of just being present.
As a semester progresses, most students work through the initial stress and boredom that arises when the mind lacks an immediate task or distraction. A first step is to recognize that lack, to feel it and not fear it—then to disentangle from the many wandering thoughts and emotions that arise to fill the gap—and once again (and again and again) to re-center on the body, the breath, and the present flowing moment. This is not easy, but most are able, over twelve weeks of practice, to connect more deeply with their bodies and minds, to experience volatile emotions and thoughts settling. They slow down, find themselves more centered and grounded, and are not only relieved, but grateful.
My greatest reward, as a semester comes to a close, are the students who’ve connected with the deep healing potential of what Suzuki Roshi, my first Zen teacher, called “Big Mind”—the mind that undergirds and, indeed, is each human being, the mind that, with the physical body, has profound capacities for spontaneous healing. This healing emerges as meditative practice enlarges awareness beyond the thinking mind’s immediate and incessant demands.
I won’t forget the young woman who spoke up—hesitantly, almost inaudibly—during a final class meeting. She’d done excellent work, but had rarely opened her mouth. “I never expected to share anything today,” she said, avoiding eye contact. “And I never thought I’d say this aloud to anyone, certainly not in a class. But ever since high school, before any big test, I’d have these huge panic attacks. I’d have to throw up over and over. It was horrible. I hated it. But it always happened. Yesterday I had a big test. All morning I was just waiting for it to happen. I felt my body kind of getting ready for it to happen—but this time I just let myself have the feelings, I was ready to let whatever happened happen, I wasn’t panicked. And then I didn’t have to throw up. I just didn’t! I came to school and took the test and it was okay.” We all sat in silence with her for a few minutes, feeling how important her transformation was.
I was grateful to this young woman, grateful for her courage, grateful that she was ready, finally, to speak up and tell the story of her struggle. Often I learn of such struggles only through reading students’ weekly writings and papers: stories of chronic pain; or recurring migraine; or sexual abuse; or reliance on prescription meds for depression, anxiety, and panic. As I come to know my students and learn their stories, I have my heart broken again and again. And I’m mended with them as they learn how the deep repose of meditation can open up a wellspring of healing energy.
By the end of the semester, many students report in course evaluations that the class was the most important they’ve taken at the University—that it should be a requirement. They’ve touched a core that lies deeper than turbulent thoughts and emotions. They can meditate for ten minutes or twenty minutes or forty minutes, allowing breath and body to calm, allowing emotions and thoughts to recede back into a larger field of consciousness. They recognize their own strength. They’ve developed a capacity to be larger and stronger than their frustrations and struggles.
I look forward to the day when many faculty will explore how meditation and mindfulness practices can develop these capacities—and bring them to students across the curriculum. Classes in the health sciences could integrate minutes of movement and meditation into every class— teaching students to center themselves so that, in the future, they can be fully present with patients. Further, students could be given simple training on how to offer, when appropriate, meditation and mindfulness to patients.
Classes in religion, philosophy, and neuroscience could integrate meditation into a curriculum as relevant to explorations of meaning and mind. Classes in literature, music, and the arts could explore contemplative practices as opening into delight in beauty and the unleashing of creativity.
Faculty members interested in meditation can explore its relevance to any discipline. Finding none, they can begin classes, or break up long classes, or precede tests with some minutes of silence, introducing soft and flexible attention upon the breath. Class time “lost” will be amply repaid by refreshed attention.
My dilemma as a college meditation teacher is losing touch with my students. I’ve come to know them. I’ve become close. I’ve struggled with their struggles. I’ve laughed with them. I want to hang on to them. And they scatter. And I worry. Will they continue the practices they, with hard work and impressive success, have given of themselves to learn? Some will, of course, find their own way. Some will find a compatible meditation center. Some will find a teacher. But as yet, neither inside nor outside the academy, do we have venues where meditators of any faith or no faith might join together in community and further their practice. +++
STUDENTS AND COLLEAGUES CELEBRATE DR. STORLIE
Erik – I will remain forever grateful for the introduction that Charlie Moldow made close to two decades ago. You have made a profound impact on the Center in so many ways. Students describe your courses as being life changing and transformative. In your teaching, you are known for clarity and simplicity combined with academic rigor and encouragement. I have benefited from your counsel and guidance in countless ways including how to frame meditation as an academic course, working with mindfulness teachers, and carefully discerning the moral and ethical pitfalls particularly as we look to collaboration with those outside of the Center. I have always trusted your perspective and valued your candor. You have mentored so many that will continue to grow and sustain this work for years to come. In deep gratitude for the many gifts you have so generously shared....
-MARY JO KREITZER
Dearest Erik, The Spirit of the Center award given to you is so well deserved. When I worked at the Center from July 2002 – August 2014, your gentle, even-handed guidance, care and support for the Center, all the students/ constituents (and me) is noteworthy. I still appreciate all the dialogues, encouragement, and poignant humor; your laughter (with your impish smile and twinkling eyes) still resonates in my heart/mind when ever I think of you (which is often), hear your name or have the pleasure of seeing and being with you in person. Your grounded humanity and your scholarship in your meditation courses is shared generously. What a gift starting up the meditation program at the Center, along with your time week after week offering the practice drop in sessions.
Your presence and voice with the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, as a seasoned teacher, provided fresh and timely perspectives while the program grew and evolved. Your relationship with everyone at the Center always felt to me very intentional, often providing open-hearted wisdom and equanimity.
May the love of everyone you have touched cloak you in a brilliant array of colors, continue to nurture YOUR spirit as your influence continues to ripple out through eternity.
Thank you Erik, much love to you and yours, always.
Mentor, teacher, guide, friend, trickster, author, poet, guardian, environmentalist, and so much more. I first met Erik at the Mindfulness for Students club in 2005 when he told a version of the Prince Lindworm fairy tale. He captivated the room with his storytelling skill and quick wit. Over these past 13 years, I’ve had the privilege to witness Erik helping students grow into mature adults by shedding the false skins of self-judgment, academic anxiety, and societal pressures. For me, Erik has been a source of wise counsel with just the right amount of Zen zap to remind me of this great mystery we call life. His gift is always the sparkling water of awareness that fills up whomever happens to hold out a cup.
Mandala is a biannual magazine produced by Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing. It captures the core aspects of the Center: reflection, transformation, spirituality, creation, and the ongoing journey that continues to shape what we are to become.