July 18 2019

Simplicity: Portals to the Contemplative

by Anne Carolyn Klein, Rice University

Me and My Background

I teach undergraduate and graduate students in the area of Buddhism. I also teach Buddhist practice outside the academy. Buddhist literature and philosophy is in many ways a natural context in which to take advantage of the current interest and growing refinement of contemplative studies in higher education. Yet, because of the academy’s interestingly complex relationship with religion, especially in a Department of Religion, I have also often felt reluctant to teach meditation in courses precisely because they do focus on Buddhist traditions.

My scholarly training in texts and language, which began at University of Wisconsin–Madison and continued at the University of Virginia, also involved many years of either living with or ongoing consultation with Tibetan masters from India, Nepal, and Tibet. All of these mentors were highly accomplished scholars and practitioners. With almost all of them, both in and out of the academy, I studied texts as well as practices. Indeed, for me as a scholar and practitioner, one of the most compelling things about Buddhism, and especially the Tibetan traditions on which I focus, is the way they seamlessly interweave different elements of human intelligence and creativity. The intellectual element is very strong and typically in service of these other elements, not a replacement for them.

For the last thirty years I have taught in the Department of Religion at Rice University in Houston, Texas. Our graduate program has an optional track in contemplative studies. For graduate students, this means paying attention to the contemplative side of the material they are reading or translating. For undergraduates, although they might also do this in their papers, my emphasis is on calling attention to capacities that can be thematized cognitively, but are most compelling when one touches into them somatically or experientially.

Lived Experience

I like to emphasize that traditional meditation systems, including Buddhist ones, also offer training in areas of natural human competency. Everyone—secular, spiritual, or religious—has an innate capacity to further qualities such as attention, imagination, personal aspiration, and to incorporate an aesthetic sensibility that heightens any of these. In distilling scholarly and contemplative material sourced in Buddhist traditions, especially Tibetan traditions, I am committed to making it clear to students that they are not simply intellects, but have other natural capacities as well that do not negate the intellect but offer different areas of knowing. Jes Betlesen has written about these competencies in a culturally expansive manner in his Gateways cited below. I believe this clarification of skills not accounted for in our appreciation of intellectual discernment is the most important element to emphasize in a general contemplative studies orientation. It can be hard to hold a middle ground here. This is not a nonintellectual position. It does, however, stand to put intellectual capacity in a new context, and on a different but equal footing with other types of capacities. The contemplative arena is not the only way to bring this distinction home, but it is a powerful method. It is a way of actually engaging these capacities, so the knowing is direct, not theoretical.

What links this orientation with the traditional Buddhist material I also teach is the emphasis on what some call lived experience, or what Eugene Gendlin calls the felt sense. Simply put, it means being in touch with what is going on in your own mind and body at a particular moment. This is simple enough. But it is challenging given the tendency (for almost everyone) to go into a story, judgment, or theory about what is occurring. In focusing on this relatively static what, we inevitably move away from the simple sensing of it. Or, to put this another way, we move from noticing how it feels to what I think. This move shifts the very core of our sense of identity. Are you a what or a how? Are you a static identity or are you a process? And what difference does that make? These are the kinds of questions a contemplative orientation can illuminate.

For anyone new to this process, and even with some experience under your belt, it is a challenge to recognize that whatever you are experiencing can be a valuable area of exploration. There is a habit of dismissal that can be hard to catch. And very revealing when one does.

In this regard, the ability to discriminate between thinking and feeling is a crucial and fundamental element of a contemplative education. It may seem obvious, but I have found again and again that when, in the course of a general conversation, you ask a student, or anyone, what they feel, they will often tell you what they think. The what is much easier to access than the how.

Once the distinction between these is clarified, a next step is to sense with increasing clarity the nuances of a felt experience. By this I mean the actual process of what it is like to do something. What do you do to spell a word? Does it come all at once, or letter by letter? Do you see the letters? Are they close or far away? In color or black and white? Handwritten or printed? What do you do to bring your mother’s face to mind? Do you remember a specific moment? Are there feelings associated with that moment? Do those feelings trigger other feelings even now? Or does something else entirely occur? When you write a paper, what do you actually do to encourage ideas, to recognize them when they come, and know how you will deploy them? Do you stare into space, take a walk, go inside your mind-body in some way?

The point is that if you pay at least occasional attention to the how without getting lost in the what, it puts you directly in touch with your own experience. And this is useful. Conversations that touch into experience, whether with a friend, a teacher, or a therapist, are the conversations that shift our perception. This is a domain of tremendous learning.

My emphasis on this comes not only from Buddhist sources, but also the work of Claire Petitmengin and Michel Bitbol, as well as Eugene Gendlin, in titles I list below. Buddhist traditions themselves are very explicit about the broad spectrum of knowing they support. They describe moving from the wisdom of hearing, or intellectual understanding, to experiential knowing as it uniquely dawns in one’s own mind and body, leading to the wisdom of meditation, namely a realization that is thoroughly integrated in one’s approach to life itself.

In the Classroom: Who Teaches What?

In my case, I offer a combination of very simple distillations of traditional practices and exercises designed to open up a particular topic. These latter are very useful, as they do not involve formal meditation and lead to lively reflection in conversation.

I’ve trained in several contemporary styles of practice, in addition to life-long exploration of traditional Tibetan ones. So I have my own long-term experience with the methods I repurpose for the classroom.

But another way to go is for the teacher to transparently be nearly as new to the exercise as the students. One can then compare notes with interest and curiosity in everyone’s take. It’s an exploration. The purpose is not to come to a conclusion. The purpose is to see. The success of this would depend very much on the teacher and atmosphere and relationships in the classroom.

Sometimes what is seen is surprising: A colleague and I taught for many years a “contemplative practicum” which met for one hour per week. It was intended as a “lab” for students taking courses on religion, mysticism, art, music, or another area related to the contemplative. However, in practice, most of the students were not taking any such course; they simply wanted to learn how to relax and escape the stress of student life. They consistently wrote the most rewarding evaluations either of us have ever received. They called it life-changing, an invaluable portal to understanding they could not have received otherwise. So I have been moved to bring some of that to my other classes as well.

Classroom Exercises

As a way of noticing what it might be like to become aware of and yet not be reactive to impulses, I sometimes give this little assignment. At your next meal (usually shortly following class) do this for your first three bites: Chew and swallow completely before reaching for the next bite.

Students often have quite a lot to say about this. For one, it’s harder than they think.

With this recognition in the air, and after just listening to what students have to say, you can guide the conversation in a variety of ways, but the most important thing to start with is encouraging the students to explore their own reactions. I might then ask them to consider their experience in the context of, for example, training in patience, or simply register their surprise at how strong even our most benign and common impulses are, how they run us. This can lead to discussions of ethics, empathy with others who are also being run by their impulses, and so on. Those who teach in a more scientific or psychological context can speak in terms of self-regulation, the proprietary nature of anxiety (how it takes over everything), or recent neuroscientific discoveries about how contemplation affects the brain. I sometimes show short videos by Richard Davidson or Jeremy Hunter, for example. They are very powerful.

Another important discovery I seek to facilitate is that even in a short time it is possible to move from a state of agitation to very different state. It is a temporary shift to be sure, and yet a revelation that such a different experience could be so close at hand. I also do short, simple guided meditations, inviting folks to notice the sense of contact with their seat, and then sense into the feeling of breath moving through nose, chest, and/or abdomen. There is often a simple but a notable shift. Body and breath are always in the present, and sensing into either can bring a taste of what it’s like to be free of the usual hurly-burly mind. So we talk about that interesting and overlooked dimension of human competence.

Kindness and compassion are important across many traditions and disciplines. The famous Tibetan practice of sending-and-removing is easily distilled into terms widely understood. First, bring to mind someone you like and the natural sense of friendliness and wish for their welfare that comes to mind. Perhaps you notice that your body relaxes a bit just with that. If so, you can let that feeling ride your exhalation, and in this way send it to another person, gradually expanding this to two and three persons, perhaps those sitting across from you in the classroom. And feel that the other person is benefitting from this in whatever way they feel they need to do.

I usually wouldn’t do this until the class has done various other exercises together. But with this one I often ask them to sit in triads, with two persons at a time “sending” to the third who is just receiving. Afterwards I give them a little time to talk among themselves. Some folks are shy, but the room usually buzzes. There are many ways to adapt this.

Sometimes I just encourage folks to do this kind of gift-giving breathing as they walk across campus, to breathe out this way, say, three times a day, three breaths each. The response, again, is sometimes very powerful.

In the contemplative practicum mentioned above, I would do a variety of guided meditations over the semester, always beginning with sensing into body and breath. These would last about fifteen-to-twenty minutes, and then we would discuss. After one of the first such sessions, an undergraduate completely new to contemplative engagement, said “Wow. I never knew sound had color.” This is a fairly common experience, though not usually quite so quick to dawn. It has interesting implication for our understanding of the senses, the phenomenon of synesthesia, and other anomalies or ordinary experience.

Two rules of thumb: share only those things you’ve experimented with yourself and find meaningful, and don’t do anything that doesn’t feel comfortable in the actual environment of that specific class on that specific day.

There are many other possibilities of course. These are just example of how something quite simple, and relatively brief, can be illuminating and very rewarding.


Resources

Bertelsen, Jes. Gateways of Empathy: The Pentagon Model. The Danish Society for the Promotion of Life Wisdom in Children. n.p. n.d. (for readers’ convenience, posted on my academia.edu site under books)

Gendlin, Eugene T. Focusing. New York, New York: Bantam, 1982.

Klein, Anne C. “Seeing Mind, Being Body: Contemplative Practice and Buddhist Epistemology.” In A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy, edited by Steven B. Emmanuel. London, United Kingdom: Blackwell, 2013. [Available on academia.edu]

———. “The Knowing Body: Currents of Connection and Women in Religious Dialogue.” In Women and Interreligious Dialogue, edited by Catherine Cornille and Jillian Maxey. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2013. [Available on academia.edu]

McLeod, Ken. Wake Up to Your Life: Discovering the Buddhist Path of Attention. New York, New York: HarperCollins, 2001.

Petitmengin, Claire. "Towards the Source of Thoughts: The Gestural and Transmodal Dimension of Lived Experience." Journal of Consciousness Studies 14, no. 3 (2007): 54–82.

Petitmengin-Peugeot, Claire. "The Intuitive Experience." Journal of Consciousness Studies 6, no. 2–3 (1999): 43–77.


Anne Carolyn KleinAnne Carolyn Klein/Rigzin Drolma is professor of religion at Rice University and co-founder of Dawn Mountain Center for Tibetan Buddhism (www.dawnmountain.org). Her training, in addition to her academics, includes close study with major Tibetan Lamas in three of Tibet’s great traditions, with about ten years overall spent living with these teachers. Her writings and teaching-retreats draw from all these, with special emphasis on Nyingma and Heart Essence traditions. Her seven books include Heart Essence of the Vast Expanse: A Story of Transmission (Shambhala, 2010); Knowledge and Liberation: Tibetan Buddhist Epistemology in Support of Transformative Religious Experience (Snow Lion, 1987), and Meeting the Great Bliss Queen: Buddhists, Feminists, and the Art of the Self (Snow Lion, 1995). All touch on the profound interplay between head and heart, mind and body; the ordinary and rarified ways of knowing so intimately described in illustrated in Buddhist descriptions of the human capacities for seeing and being.