Oren Ergas visited QMU on the 14th of June 2018. Oren publishes prolifically in the area of contemplative practices in Higher Education. For many of these publications, please see his website. Oren presented a wide-ranging overview of the field to a select audience of ten academic staff at QMU, drawing on Psychology, Social Science, Philosophy of Education and Contemplative Neuroscience (which is a relative new branch of Neuroscience). In addition, he described how he integrates contemplative practices within his own courses. You can find his presentations here and here, but in this blog post I’ll just highlight some aspects that I found particularly helpful or important.
When we begin to engage with contemplative practices, one aspect involves becoming conscious of the process of contemplation itself. We then notice that there is some kind of internal force required to start a contemplative session, or meditation (which is the more familiar term for most people). This force Oren calls ‘volitional attention’. I found this interesting, as it suggests that we can also have ‘involuntary attention’, something to which most of us can probably easily relate. If I think about how much of my day I spend reacting to what comes at me, rather than consciously directing my attention, I could certainly question the extent to which I am a self-directed individual. This is an important discovery for anyone who wants to become more conscious, more deliberate, more individually driven, rather than driven by external circumstances and seems to be absolutely essential to successful learning, teaching and research.
Applying this to the academic environment, it is not difficult to see what contemplative practices can offer, even at a very initial, basic level. Student and staff are under more stress than ever before. Information technology is driving the speed of knowledge creation and communication continually upwards and it is simply no longer possible to keep up. Stepping back and sitting quietly, perhaps just directing our ‘volitional attention’ to the sensation of our feet on the floor, or our breathing, offers us a brief respite from all this, helps to put things in perspective and connects us back to our own embodied self, where life simply is, without us having to do anything.
I also appreciated Oren’s indication that with these practices, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Different forms and approaches of meditation may be helpful for different people. For example, if you have difficulty concentrating, then the above examples of focused awareness may be a good practice, but if you are too focused, or tend to get obsessed with things, then perhaps practicing open awareness, becoming aware of the range of impressions entering your awareness, may be more helpful.