Fostering insight at Chico State
Group seeks to promote mindfulness contemplation on campus and in the curriculum
To the ancient Greeks, contemplation was just as important to the intellectual life as reason and knowledge. Reason based on knowledge was a powerful tool, they knew, but contemplation allowed for the quieting of the mind to produce insight, the wellspring of creativity.
Such respect for the power of contemplation has largely been lost in the modern university. It’s as if the logical, linear left brain has taken over the academic body, leaving the right brain—the source of intuition, feeling, insight and creativity—largely unused outside of such departments as art, theater and music.
Margaret Dufon wants to adjust that focus. An associate professor of English, she is spearheading an effort to incorporate what she and a group of colleagues call “transformative learning” into the Chico State University curriculum. In addition to bringing a variety of speakers to campus, they are working to make a program called Mindfulness, Self and Society one of the “pathways” in the General Education program, which is currently being revamped.
“Rationality can take us only so far,” Dufon, who goes by Peggy, said during a recent interview at her cozy home in the Avenues. The problems the world faces cannot be solved by logic alone: “They’ve gone beyond what our rational minds can solve.”
That leaves empathy, understanding, compassion and self-awareness as the tools that can heal our relationships with the Earth and each other. And one of the best ways to develop those tools is through the practice of mindfulness, the moment-to-moment awareness of one’s own physical, mental and emotional experiences.
Dufon’s group, called the Faculty Initiative for Transformative Learning, is made up of teachers from a range of disciplines, from agriculture and kinesiology to philosophy and management. It seeks to foster “a holistic approach to education that recognizes and supports the development of the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of each individual human being,” according to an explanatory description Dufon authored.
She notes that numerous universities around the country have either developed mindfulness centers on campus or incorporated the practice into their curricula in some form. The notion is spreading that education involves acquiring awareness of the inner self just as much as knowledge of the outside world.
Dufon’s group has been meeting for more than four years, and has gradually grown in members over that time. It has received two grants, one to pay to bring speakers to campus, the other to subsidize development of the Mindfulness, Self and Society GE pathway.
The first speaker, Anne Beffel, is an artist and art teacher from Syracuse University, in New York. She’ll be talking to faculty on Sept. 13 about how she uses contemplative practices in the teaching of art. Then, on Sept. 16, local mindfulness teacher Steve Flowers will speak to the campus community on mindfulness-based stress reduction.
The plan is to have a total of six speakers during the school year.
The group has also been working diligently to prepare its pathway proposal, which is due Sept. 30. The new GE program is scheduled for implementation in the spring 2012 semester.
The pathways will provide connecting themes for GE programs. Students will be able to meet their GE requirements in each disciplinary area (arts, humanities, societal institutions, individual & society, etc.) by taking a course designed to present the material in a manner that incorporates the pathway theme they have selected.
Other pathway themes being developed, Dufon said, include food, diversity, international studies, mind and the brain, sustainability and math.
The mindfulness pathway is unique in a couple of ways, she said. For one, its teachers will be required to have a personal mindfulness practice—meditation, yoga, tai chi, contemplative movement, etc. In addition, the pathway will be as much about the personal process of becoming a fully realized human being as about acquiring knowledge.
“We want to change the culture of the campus,” she explained. “We want to provide alternative ways to cope with stress [besides partying, alcohol and drugs] and give students tools that can be more positive for both them and the community.”
She enjoyed a small success on that front just last week, when she met with university President Paul Zingg. She wanted to discuss the possibility of creating a special space for quiet contemplation on campus. Zingg liked the idea, she said, and pledged to pursue it.