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Contemplative education

 

 

A recently established academic centre that aims to restore diminishing mindfulness among today's professionals points to the paradox of this age.

SIRIPORN SACHAMUNEEWONGSE

Education is considered almost as essential in the modern world as water, air or food. Many of us are enrolled in formal educational institutions from the age of two onward, for the next twenty to thirty years of our lives, until degrees are awarded at bachelor's, master's or doctorate levels.


One motive of education is to sustain development, since upon graduation individuals go on to make contributions to the world by means of the knowledge they have acquired.


Medical practitioners, for instance, become ever more accomplished in curing illnesses and restoring health based on their training in latest techniques and advances in the biological sciences. Likewise, graduates in the Information Technology field are pushing the human race toward an ever more connected and information-laden future.


However, it is evident that even as individuals go on to master many areas of science and the arts, other dimensions of the human experience are being neglected. Professional life is becoming more stressful, intolerant, unforgiving and, in some cases, even violent.

Assoc. Prof Anuchat Poungsomlee of Mahidol University says that one explanation for this phenomenon, which is evident across nearly all segments of society, has to do with a learning process that places too much priority on developing competent professional skills.

Students participate in a yoga session.

The professor remarked that conventional education is inclined toward matters that are external to students. Though this is necessary to some extent, such an approach is incomplete, he says, noting that for students to achieve fulfillment, it is mandatory that they also learn to know their "inner selves."


Such concerns have been widespread in academia for a while now, says Prof Anuchat, and have become more prominent with global influences and technological advancements.

He acknowledged, however, that there has also been a progressive shift in the opposite direction, with spirituality and mindfulness receiving more attention, particularly in the West. "The trend has been to redefine these subjects based on scientific knowledge, as opposed to belief," he notes.

For instance, the process of meditation has been thoroughly researched over the years, and found to have a profound impact on one's sense of awareness and intellectual development.

Prof Anuchat mentioned Naropa University, a private liberal arts university in Boulder, Colorado in the US, describing it as a "Buddhist-inspired university, with the purpose of exploring the subject of contemplative education".


Inspired by such developments, a contemplative education movement was initiated in Thailand by an informal network of enthusiasts.

Members of this movement include lecturers, academics and other professionals from Mahidol and Chulalongkorn universities, the Arsom Silp Institute of Arts, the Institute of Sathyasai Education, Kwan Muang Institute and The Thai Health Promotion Foundation.

Prof Anuchat says that a consensus of the network is that one shortcoming in teaching subjects such as meditation and mindfulness from a religious perspective is that religion sometimes does not "reach an individual's mind".
Hence, it was recognised that it would be helpful to include contemplative education in the academic curriculum, as it is a primary contributor to human development.

Prof Anuchat noted that Mahidol University is known for developing some of the nation's best medical practitioners, the Siriraj faculty and Ramathibodi faculty. The academics initially wanted to address whether the doctors and scientists being trained were also good human beings.

Said Prof. Anuchat: "It was important to know if our doctors are compassionate. However, in order for one to be compassionate to others, one must be skilled at understanding one's self. This is where self awareness comes in."
Eventually, following a meeting of the Mahidol University Council, on July 19, 2006 a resolution for establishing a Centre for Contemplative Education was approved, with a mandate to promote the concept into the university's curriculum.

As director of the now-established centre, Prof Anuchat states that it is committed to balancing self-development and strengthening the learning process.

"The purpose of the centre is to influence a change among students enrolled at most of Mahidol University's departments. Starting at MU, this change could be taken to the rest of the society."


The contemplative subject

A meditation session at the Centre for Contemplative Education.

 

Prof Prawese Wasi, an Honorary Advisor of the Contemplative Education Center, says: "Contemplative education enables us to understand the inner self, to be fully aware, and to understand the truth. It will change the way we look at the world and other people. There will emerge immense freedom, happiness, wisdom and love for humanity."


"In other words, it will make us more perfect human beings."


Prof Anuchat pointed out that personal transformation cannot take place without direct experience. "Others can only act as guides, or facilitators."


Accordingly, the curriculum has students guided in sessions by facilitators who try to enable a transformative experience for each individual.

 

Practising meditation is one exercise taken up to give this direct experience. Other activities students engage in are contemplative arts and volunteer activities.

Miss Bunrakham Champa, a 4th-year student from the College of Religious Studies at Mahidol, participated in a moulding arts session, one of the contemplative courses offered at the centre. She thinks the activity helped her to realise that she was short-tempered.

"I observed how I am always rushing in my endeavours. In the sculpting activity, this became evident, because when I couldn't scuplt properly I would would get stressful, which in turn made matters even worse."

The student claims that engaging in the moulding activity just a few times increased her concentration levels, calmed her down, and made her more accepting of the views of others.

Prof Anuchat remarked that the goal of activities like this is not to expend energy, but to increase self-awareness. This comes eventually from persistence.

The idea is that once personal transformation is achieved it can facilitate higher levels of transformation at the organisational and social levels.

He believes that contemplation could be a solution for the educational system, as it encourages all-around development among students. And mindfulness, he adds, helps in all real-life situations and enables one to better handle personal and professional situations.

Prof Anuchat then outlined some obstacles to gaining acceptance for contemplative education. He pointed out that in Thai society, the subject of contemplation is central to the predominant religion, Buddhism.

"But the intention of the centre is to go beyond religion and to explore the mind as a universal entity; the focus is not only on meditation."

He also noted that implementing a programme for transformative learning was another challenge. "This is a tough subject. It's very abstract. And even if a transformation takes place, how would it be measured?"

Training the trainers

A painting by one of the students at the centre. The arts are a primary tool for promoting mindfulness among students. .

In setting up the center, initially 30 potential trainers were themselves trained. The selected individuals engaged in several courses over the course of more than a year in 2006 and 2007.

These individuals, mostly professors and senior administrators of the university, participated in a variety of sessions with somewhat far-out course descriptions: authentic leadership, contemplative arts, anagram (a self-actualisation course), and a vision quest, where each one of them submitted to absolute isolation for days in a row in a forest in Chiang Mai province.

Following each activity, the trainers had to express and document their emotions in a journal, to be shared at focus group sessions. A facilitator would judge from this source whether any significant change had taken place at the personal level for each participant.

At the same time, research was conducted on the nature of personal transformation. This included efforts to objectify the basics of happiness.

"In time, with the retreats and the constant sessions, a synergy was created, signifying a greater potential for developing the transformative learning process. We recognised that a lot of people were interested in the subject, but until then there had been a limited amount of resources and networking opportunities dedicated to it," said Prof Anuchat, adding that "there is a lot of research potential in this sphere".

Accordingly, he said, although the initial mission of the centre was to work with various university departments to implement change, the centre developed its own curriculum with an additional focus on research.

Beginning this year, Mahidol will offer a Master of Arts in Contemplative Education and Transformative Learning. The focus of the course is to employ a variety of tactics to achieve contemplativeness among students. Arts, retreat opportunities and self-discerning independent studies are part of the curricula.

Admitting that evaluation of the curricula was another important matter, Prof.Anuchat said that conventional academic evaluation tools, like reports and exams, would be used to a certain extent, and that parts of the evaluation would also be done by peers, as well as students' journals, to further illustrate their personal path.

So far the professor is optimistic for the success of the programme. The centre had expected only about 10 students to apply for the course this year, but about 40 applications - fresh graduates, businessmen, teachers, volunteers and government officials - were received, from which 14 were finally selected.

"Most of these individuals are engaged in their careers already," remarked Prof Anuchat. The course is expected to add another dimension to their personal and professional lives.

Post Date : April 2, 2008

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