How Sitting Still Can Make You a Better Student

As I mentioned in my last post, the idea behind contemplative education is that you can’t expect to use information effectively if your only means of understanding it is intellectual, such as reading a book.  Contemplative education uses a well rounded approach, which includes experiential learning as well as a sort of deeper “digestion” of the information, and then integration of that knowledge into daily life. While there are probably various ways to do this, which are likely utilized by other models of education, the way that contemplative education works is through meditation.

Now, before you go back to that mental image of the flower children chanting in a circle, allow me to explain what meditation really is. Naropa’s style of contemplative meditation involves Vipassana Meditation.  Put simply, this form of meditation involves sitting still with your eyes open, paying attention to your breath, and noticing any thoughts that come into your head.  Sounds easy, right?  Not quite.  There are so many things going through our heads all the time, that eventually we stop paying much attention to how important they might be, and we just get carried away.  You sit down, start focusing on your breath for about 3 seconds, and then start noticing the floor.  You remember your own bathroom floor, and how dirty it is, and how that friend of yours commented on the pattern of the tile.  Then you start thinking about that friend, which leads you to thinking about that city where you met in that bar.  By the time you remember to focus on your breath again, 30 seconds has gone by.

Most people think that meditation is relaxing, and pleasant.  But the fact is, it’s often frustrating, and tiring, and once you start noticing your thoughts, you can be quite disturbed by what’s actually in them.  You start noticing feelings that you’ve shoved deep inside yourself, and when they come up, you can’t yell or go zone out into a movie.  All you can do is sit with them.

So how does this help you learn?  As you spend time noticing your thoughts, you start being more deliberate about paying attention to the world.  It’s harder to fool yourself into thinking the world is out to get you, for example, because you notice all of those thoughts like “how dare he say that to me” or “why doesn’t the bus ever come sooner?”  Usually, you’d just accept those thoughts as truthful, and feel rotten about it.  But when you start noticing your thoughts, you question their usefulness.  For example, when the thought “how dare he say that to me” shows up, you might then thing “that really hurt my feelings, but maybe he’s having a bad day, I shouldn’t take it personally.”  You are spending less time focusing on unpleasant things, and more time paying attention to what’s actually going on around you.

The first step in contemplative education is the traditional sort of learning, from books and lectures and such.  Meditation is the second step.  It helps you start to understand what you’re learning, because you start to notice your reactions to the information.  You notice how the information is exemplified in your own life, and you start to discover the real value in the knowledge.  When you learn about it this way, it’s much harder to just forget about it once you’ve passed your exams.

I’ll cover the third part of contemplative practice in my next post.  In the meantime, give it a shot!  Sit down, loosely focus your eyes a couple of feet in front of you, pay attention to your breathing, and notice what thoughts come up. Try this for about 5 or 10 minutes.  Then, let me know how it went!  Maybe you’ll have a different experience than I did.  Maybe it’ll be great, or maybe it won’t work at all.  Either way, it’s worth a shot, and I’d love to hear about your experiment with meditation!


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