November 21 2019

Reading with a Fresh Mind: Contemplative Reading Exercise

by Judith Simmer-Brown, Naropa University

a small tower of rocks built on an enbankment in front of a forest

Contemplative Reading Exercise

Introducing the sacred texts of various religious traditions has been a staple in my undergraduate courses over the years. The purpose of the exercise is to encourage students to animate their personal encounter with the text as part of the learning process. It is also encouragement to study the cultural and religious context of a text with the quality of direct encounter as the ground.

  1. Create a positive, open atmosphere in which to offer the practice to students. This is a process of discovery and creative engagement. There are no wrong answers. In general, students respond better if they know ahead of time why they are doing something. If a student objects to participating in this exercise, come up with an alternate activity, such as a free write, for them to engage instead.
  2. Let students know that the class will be studying a passage of a sacred text, briefly giving historical dates, cultural context, known authorship, religious tradition, original language, and translator in a very general way.
  3. Let the class know there will be a discussion and chance to talk about their experiences afterwards. I have found this helps students to go more deeply into their experience.
  4. Having made copies for the class of the passage of text, fold your chosen reading in half (so that one cannot see the words) and hand out copies to each student.
  5. Have all students open their copies of the text at the same time. Slowly read it aloud to the class, while everyone follows along silently. Encourage everyone to stay naively present, paying attention to the literal words, rather than trying to interpret the text. Let the words penetrate.
  6. Now students read the text repeatedly for themselves, moving slowly and just staying with the actual words. Invite students to develop a sense of curiosity about the words they are reading. While meanings may begin to dawn, do not try to make them consistent or coherent. Encourage students to notice how it feels to stay with one relatively short piece of writing for an extended period of time (three-to-six minutes, depending on the length of the text). Ask them to resist coming to any conclusions about the meaning of the passage.
  7. Divide students into small groups of two-to-three people to share some of their reflections on the meaning as well as on the process of contemplative reading. What layers of meaning arose for them as they repeatedly re-read the text?
  8. Students return once more to the reading, this time focusing on the analysis of the text. Guide everyone to reflect on the interpretation of the words and on the various meaning(s) within the reading. Students can make notes on the text if they like.
  9. Then, introduce a period of quiet interiority, without reading the text, encouraging students to relax their minds and invite curiosity, insights, questions that might arise without any bias for or against them.
  10. Return to the text a third time. This time, ask students to express or write a response to the reading, letting their own voices begin to surface. Invite students to write their own poem/prose in response to this reading.
  11. Have students return to their small groups to share their writing or creative expression, and their response to the exercise.
  12. Have a group discussion about this overall experience including any challenges and insights that emerged. Guide students to notice any response they had to the exercise. What was it like to just stay with the words? What was it like to spend time reflecting deeply on the meaning? What was noticed before, during, or just after the practice? How did their relationship to the text develop over the course of the exercise? Was something as habitual as reading experienced in a new way through this practice?

Contemplative Education

Paul J. Griffiths describes how in contemporary higher education we professors have come to read as consumers, extracting “what is useful or exciting or entertaining…preferably with dispatch, and then to move on to something else.”1 He contrasts this with a more traditional type of reading, derived from religious practices East and West, which are more like those of “a lover, to caress, lick, smell, and savor words on the page, and to return to them ever and again.”2 Unfortunately, we are passing these habits on to our students as well, robbing them of the sheer pleasure and wealth of immersing in the words of the texts we read.

I was motivated to develop contemplative pedagogies in my religious studies courses by my own experience of seeing the impact of disciplined interiority on my own scholarship and teaching. In my first academic position, at a state university, I was disheartened by the apathy of the students, the limited forms of communication in the large lecture course, and the consumerist approach of the entire university. There had to be a more gratifying approach to teaching and learning. When I began to develop exercises for slowing down academic reading and writing and for encouraging students to trust their own inner wisdom, I began to enjoy teaching again. Class discussions were enriched, students showed up in the classroom in a more embodied way, and exams and academic papers became more interesting and original. Not all the students were in school only for the grade.

This contemplative reading exercise comes from the contemplative education movement that adapts pedagogies from religious traditions to a secular context of the university classroom. My home institution, Naropa University, was founded with a vision of integrating contemplative exercises into every academic discipline and almost every course. What distinguishes contemplative education from just “good teaching” is the strategic focus on the development of “first-person inquiry,” that brings personal experience and inner-wisdom into the learning process. This mode of inquiry is not mere opinion, established narrative, or reaction; instead, it is the disciplined process of returning the attention to the passage of text and dropping immediate notions of what is meant. This kind of practice mirrors the disciplines of Tibetan Buddhist contemplation and Benedictine Lectio Divina that move the mind to deeper reflection about inner meanings of the words or passages studied.

First-person inquiry is often associated with critical subjectivity that is the fruit of rigorous training and cultivation with meditation and contemplation practices, as well as creative process in artistic traditions. It is critical because of its ability to focus in the present moment, to discover emergent wisdom arising in specific investigations. In the exercise above, the instruction to refrain from quick judgment or reaction reflects the discipline of staying with a passage of text without jumping to conclusions. This eventually yields a much more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the text.

First-person inquiry differs from second-person, which draws on interactive and experiential learning derived from dialogue, internships and service learning, and study abroad experiences. Third-person inquiry, the bread and butter of university pedagogy, draws on the annals of science, humanities, and social science and involves mastery of information, logics, contexts, and discoveries of our academic forebears. First-person inquiry can never stand alone in higher education. Its intercourse with second- and third-person inquiry bring multidimensionality to learning that engages the whole person and enlivens inquiry and investigation. As can be seen above, the contemplative reading exercise uses all three modes of inquiry to deepen the learning process.

Impact of Contemplative Pedagogy

In my years of teaching, this way of introducing contemplative reading has whetted the students’ appetites for learning. Contemplative reading suggests that they could make a personal relationship with the sacred text of another’s tradition on a personal, resonant level in a setting in which their own inner-wisdom is honored and encouraged. This, then, has become the ground for further inquiry and a nuanced understanding of what is involved in studying sacred texts in context, even while recognizing that there are resonances available that are not defined only by culture. I have usually followed this exercise with a more structured analysis and discussion that explores these aspects.

It is ironic that in religious studies there has been such a resistance to the cultivation of interiority, based on our history of becoming a respected academic discipline. In an attempt to distinguish our field from that of theology or from religious institutions that proselytize, we have become immediately suspicious of subjectivity, silence, and anything that may look like religious practice.

But the pendulum has swung so far into hyperobjectivity that we may be depriving our students of their yearning to slow down, reflect, and delve into the existential questions of their lives in an educational setting. Instead, many of them may turn to professors who teach mindfulness or spirituality in classrooms far away from religious studies. Many of those professors may do so without the sophistication and training to refrain from cultural appropriation, thinly veiled guru complexes, or sensitivity to pluralism and the privacy of their students.

This exercise in contemplative reading cannot be regarded as religious, even though it has been adapted from religious communities for whom study has been a form of worship. Contemplative pedagogies draw inspiration from many sources, including artistic disciplines that cultivate creative process. The primary challenge is to develop methods that do not merely entertain students, but ones that draw them into cognizance of their most deeply held opinions, habits, and views that contrast with their present-moment wisdom. One method that develops this cognizance is the repeated shifting of attention from the content of their thoughts to the larger field of awareness in which those thoughts arise. An effective way to do this is attentional training or mindfulness that returns to a simple focus on a neutral object over and over again. William James famously spoke of this as “voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again” as “the root of judgment, character and will... An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.3 Parallels are found in diverse contemplative traditions from Buddhism and yoga to the prayer traditions of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.

Contemplative reading can be altered to fit a variety of academic disciplines and can be used in a variety of religious studies courses. Cultivating a dynamic, nonconsumer relationship with what we read has the potential to transform teaching and learning into a meaningful engagement with a sacred text, a literary piece of prose or poetry, or a passage of philosophical argument that can have a lasting effect on ourselves and our students.

For more information on contemplative reading practice, see https://www.naropa.edu/academics/cace/resources/pedagogy-trainings/contemplative-reading.php.


1 Paul J. Griffiths, Religious Reading: The Place of Reading in the Practice of Religion (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999), ix.

2 Ibid.

3 William James, The Principles of Psychology (New York, NY: Henry Holt, 1890), 493.

Resources

Barbezat, Daniel P., and Bush, Mirabai, eds. Contemplative Practices in Higher Education: Powerful Methods to Transform Teaching and Learning, San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass, 2014.

Finkel, Donald L. Teaching With your Mouth Shut. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Boynton/Cook Publishers, 2000.

Grace, Fran, and Judith Simmer-Brown, eds., Meditation and the Classroom: Contemplative Pedagogy for Religious Studies. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Griffiths, Paul J. Religious Reading: The Place of Reading in the Practice of Religion. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Komjathy, Louis. Introducing Contemplative Studies. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley Blackwell, 2018.

Wallace, B. Alan. The Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a New Science of Consciousness. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Zajonc, Arthur. Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry: When Knowing Becomes Love. Barrington, Massachusetts: Lindesfarne Press, 2009.


Judith Simmer-BrownJudith Simmer-Brown is Distinguished Professor of Contemplative and Religious Studies at Naropa University, where she is a founding faculty member and has taught for over forty years. Naropa University has pioneered contemplative education, bringing mindfulness and contemplative pedagogies into every academic discipline and every classroom in the arts, humanities, social sciences, and sciences. Simmer-Brown is the founder of the Center for the Advancement of Contemplative Education (CACE), and now serves as senior advisor. She is an Acharya (senior dharma teacher) in Shambhala International and teaches meditation widely. She cochairs the Contemplative Studies Unit steering committee for the American Academy of Religion and is author of Dakini’s Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism (Shambhala, 2001) and editor, with Fran Grace, of Meditation and the Classroom: Contemplative Pedagogy for Religious Studies (SUNY Press, 2011). She serves as co-editor, with Harold Roth and Amishi Jha, of a new contemplative studies book series for SUNY Press.